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The lion

/ 12:45 AM October 09, 2015

The many whose lives were touched by Joker Arroyo will recall different moments to remember him by. How should a nation whose history he helped shape honor his memory?

Perhaps the moment that different generations will remember best is a scene from the first impeachment trial in Philippine history. The year was 2000—the very cusp of the new millennium. The setting was the main hall of the Senate of the Philippines, the audience some of the country’s most powerful officials. As leader of the impeachment prosecutors from the House of Representatives, Arroyo had the opportunity to make the case against President Joseph Estrada in the strongest possible terms.

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Waving a check bearing a signature similar to Estrada’s, he accused the popular president of hiding great, ill-gotten wealth under assumed identities. “We cannot have the country run by a thief like this,” he thundered.

For some who saw that opening argument on live television, the scene was instantly frozen in time—a mere congressman from a small district, taking on the most popular resident of Malacañang since Ramon Magsaysay in the 1950s, in language that could not be misunderstood. “We cannot have the country run by a thief like this.”

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That was quintessential Joker Arroyo: the scourge of the corrupt, the tilter at windmills, the redresser of wrongs, the champion of the lost cause. The events of Jan. 16, 2001, which led eventually to Estrada’s people-powered ouster, may have obscured the true stakes of that impeachment trial, but impeaching Estrada was by no means guaranteed. On the day Arroyo stood on the Senate floor and called the president of the Philippines a thief, he could not be sure that the odds, and history, would be on his side.

But—to remember Arroyo at his best—he always fought for what he believed was right, regardless of the consequences, or indeed even in the face of imminent defeat.

He was the fightingest human rights lawyer during the dark days of the Marcos dictatorship: the first to question the imposition of martial rule, the most vocal to argue against the expansion of the powers of the executive, the last to leave the victims of human rights abuses behind. He also helped defend Ninoy Aquino, Marcos’ main critic, against manufactured charges filed in courts martial. Indeed, this is the first image many from that generation have of him: standing beside Aquino, offering counsel.

Before Arroyo became a three-term congressman and a two-term senator, he was a fixture of the so-called parliament of the streets; at a time when it was highly dangerous to publicly oppose Marcos, his wife Imelda, and the rest of the regime, Arroyo could be found not only arguing in the courts which Marcos controlled but also taking to the streets which Marcos’ security forces patrolled. And like his great friend Rene Saguisag, he filled his time during martial rule visiting school campuses, spreading the truth about Marcos misrule.

When Corazon Aquino assumed the presidency, he served as her first executive secretary—a controversial figure from the very start, and an easy target for those whose formative years were spent in the Marcos military.

He thrived in the House when he finally decided to throw his hat into the political ring, but for one reason or another he did not fare well in surveys measuring senatorial prospects. It was only when he led the impeachment of Estrada that he became, in his own right, a national politician, with a national constituency. His 12 years in the Senate were memorable, in part because of his unstinting defense of another president, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, and in part because of his hostility toward yet another, the second President Aquino. (His putdown of the early years of the administration of Benigno Aquino III was unforgettable, likening it to a “student government.”) But that was Joker Arroyo, too: He spoke his mind, and damn the consequences.

In the 1970s, when he first entered the public sphere, he was the counsel of the beleaguered leaders of the opposition: Ninoy Aquino, Lorenzo Tañada, Aquilino Pimentel Jr., et al. Four decades later, it is clear that he was one of the true eminences of that time and, in the post-Marcos era, a lion in politics.

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TAGS: Aquilino Pimentel Jr., Benigno Aquino III, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, Joker Arroyo, Joseph Estrada, Lorenzo Tañada, Ninoy Aquino
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