Jose W. Diokno

Nationalist
February 26, 1922 - February 27, 1987

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Defining Jose W. Diokno

BY F. SIONIL JOSE

The truest leaders of a nation are not always anointed by elections or popular acclaim. They do not preen before an adoring populace, or strut in the perfumed corridors of power in fact, they stay away from the sharp focus of media, from the rambunctious pulpits of quasi-religious charlatans. It is in their nature, their sterling character, to work quietly, persistently, often at their own expense and personal sacrifice or discomfort. And some, as a matter of fact, are reduced to penury by their own virtue. What they do is voice the aspirations of the silenced and the silent, and are the pithy conscience of a people often mired in ignorance and apathy. Apolinario Mabini of the Revolution of 1896 was one crippled, poor, but enlightened, he provided the ideological underpinning of that revolution, and though thrust away from the inner councils of the President of the first Republic, Emilio Aguinaldo, he went on to write and speak for the nation that had become an American colony. Jose Wright Diokno is another the truly marmoreal opponent to the Marcos dictatorship, in a sense stronger than Ninoy Aquino because he never aspired to take over from Marcos. And also because he stayed home.

I first knew Pepe Diokno when I was in the old Manila Times in the 1950s; I had gravitated to politicians like him Raul Manglapus, Manny Pelaez, Manny Manahan all of whom championed agrarian reform. I really got to know him best after my return from Sri Lanka in 1964 and I opened Solidaridad Bookshop late that year. I often saw him in Joaquin Po’s Popular Bookstore at Doroteo Jose where, in the ‘50s, Manila’s tiny circle of writers/intellectuals often perused Joaquin’s latest books from the United States and the United Kingdom.

I was fascinated by Pepe primarily because of what he had done in 1962 the year that I left for Sri Lanka for a diplomatic posting. As Secretary of Justice in the Macapagal cabinet, he prosecuted Harry Stonehill and had the American businessman thrown out of the country.

Secretary of Justice

Harry Stonehill came to the Philippines with the US Army of Liberation in 1945 and had stayed on like a few of those GIs who saw opportunities in the erstwhile American colony. He had married into one of the wealthy local families and, with his business savvy, had started a conglomerate of enterprises pioneering and innovative. It included a ramie plantation in Mindanao that would have developed into a major textile industry, glass manufacturing, and whatever else. He had allied himself with Filipino industrialists and was far ahead of so many of them in vision and energy.

But Stonehill was too loudmouthed, even for Filipino politicians who were adept at boasting. He made it known that he could have any politician in his pocket, and to me personally, he said that one reason for his success was that he diligently followed the 11th commandment: Never get caught.

But he did. Jose W. Diokno was his nemesis. Stonehill was banished, the enterprises he started dismantled and taken over by his lackeys.

Was the ousting of Stonehill evidence of Diokno’s anti-Americanism? In those many years that I knew Pepe, we had a continuing argument on two issues: his pronounced opposition to the American presence in the Philippines, and violence as a final option in revolutionary change.

Many in my generation had opposed the Parity Agreement imposed on us by the Americans upon the grant of our independence in 1946 that they have equal rights in the exploitation of our natural resources. And above all, the military bases the huge tracts of land which they controlled in Clark, Subic and elsewhere.

I had argued that his anti-American stance was politically bad for him because he was a politician in a country whose population is so pervasively pro-American.

As for violence as an option in a revolution against a tyrannical regime, I had argued that the state uses “white” violence against its own people when the justice system, which it controls, does not provide even simple justice to the oppressed. The answer to this intransigence is “red” violence which the people must exercise.

Nationalist

Pepe was truly a man of the law, of peace. “When you accept violence,” he said, “there is no way by which you can control it.” While he did not accept violence as such, many of those he defended in the courts subscribed to this belief.

Diokno’s opposition to the American bases was anchored on nationalist principles. I recall a lunch with the New Yorker writer, the late Robert Shaplen an old Asia hand and one of America’s foremost journalists covering the Philippines.

Bob had asked what the root of his opposition to the bases was, why he wanted them out when countries like Japan a very nationalistic country had them and so did Thailand. So many countries had defense treaties with the United States.

Diokno said, “We are a young country. We cannot develop without a strong sense of nation. The very presence of the bases here impedes precisely that feeling. You mention Japan, the other countries these are mature countries, they do not need to emphasize the importance of nationalism.”

I was in complete agreement with him. The American bases, the tremendous American influence in the country inhibited Philippine development because they perpetuated dependency and the teacher/pupil relationship.

Bob Shaplen understood that. Diokno admired America, so many of the egalitarian qualities of American society. He sent his children there to study, and when he was finally stricken with cancer, it was to the United States where he hurried for treatment.

Diokno’s opposition to the American bases was shared by a vociferous minority. I had worried about it for the simple reason that it was not productive for any politician to harbor such sentiments. Even the New People’s Army could have gotten more mass support if it was not anti-American and pro-Chinese.

But later on, I changed my thinking. The Japanese were paying for the American bases in their soil. There were American bases in Korea, in Taiwan, and these countries were forging ahead of us. Verily, the American presence did not obstruct progress. On the contrary, these countries were able to take advantage of the best market in the world the United States.

Freedom fighter

Pepe was a very good writer and a brilliant speaker in English and Tagalog. Wherever it was, at the halls of Congress, a small caucus or a massive crowd at a political rally, his audience listened raptly, attentively for he was no common rabble rouser, spouting big words and hurling bombas as the rabble would call bombast.

Recounts Chel, his lawyer son, sometime in 1978 or there abouts, Diokno spoke at Liwasang Bonifacio in Manila. His theme: Marcos and his oppressive regime. The crowd was huge; it hung on to every word that he uttered, and at the end of his speech, as Chel observed, had he urged the crowd to march to Malacañang, he was sure that it would have done so. Was it Lenin who said that “power was in the streets, and all one had to do was pick it up”?

But after that speech, he asked his sons to go with him for a cup of coffee and Diokno told them why he had held back his mesmerized listeners: it was the right thing to do.

He was also a very good photographer; this not many knew. I saw his pictures, I saw him work in the dark room. He had vision, an artist’s clear and observant eye.

I say all these to illustrate the wide arc of his talents. I enjoyed visiting Pepe; for one, his secretary Perla Castillo is a schoolmate at the elementary school in the old hometown. It was also at his office were I often met the late Haydee Yorac, one of the stalwarts of the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) which Pepe set up. And there was Cookie, his ever-helpful daughter.

When Marcos declared martial law in September 1972, Pepe was arrested and confined in solitary in Fort Magsaysay in Laur, Nueva Ecija at the same time that Ninoy Aquino was also jailed there. That month during which he was in solitary, he almost lost his sanity. The imprisonment was psychologically designed to humiliate and demean him. The tiny room was bare except for a cot. The window was barred, the door had no knob, and the fluorescent lamp couldn’t be switched off. He was denied reading and writing materials as well as material possessions.

He said Marcos was deliberate he released him but he continued to imprison Ninoy because Marcos knew Diokno was not a real threat to him. He did not aspire for the presidency, he did not have the political machine that Ninoy had.

People’s lawyer

He could now oppose Marcos in the open and that is what he did. More than this, he continued to work for the workers and the peasants. There were occasions when I accompanied him to the provinces where he went at his own expense to defend the poor in court trials.

He confided that he intimidated the judges with his presence, a national figure, a political and legal luminary, on the side of the peasantry. Almost always, he won the court battles with his presence alone. The peasants adored him.

As with most of those who opposed Marcos, Diokno suffered financially. He had to let go of his house in Magallanes to transfer to a more modest and accessible house in Quezon City. But even with his diminished income, he continued his free legal service to the poor. 

He was already on his deathbed when I last visited Pepe. Nena, his devoted wife, no longer permitted visitors, but because she recognized our long friendship, she allowed me to see him. I almost broke down when I saw him so wan, so emaciated. I did not want to tax his mind any further but I just couldn’t help myself. That Mendiola tragedy had just transpired; President Cory had refused to see the farmers asking for agrarian reform; they had demonstrated and 19 were killed.

“Pepe,” I said, “those who were killed in Mendiola how will they ever get justice? Their fate argues for revolution.”

He smiled. “Frankie, hindi nag-iba ang isip ko. Once you accept violence, there is no way you can control it.”

When he died, his body was brought to that church near his house. I went there one morning and on my way out, I came across them along the sidewalk outside the churchyard, recognized some the farmers whom Pepe had helped.

I asked, “Why aren’t you there inside close to him?”

One of them said, “We are here because Cory’s security people do not want us inside.”

I was so shocked and angry, as I left them tears burned in my eyes.

On greatness

Achievers become popular, famous, rich even. But greatness? This exalted condition is reserved for those who have transcended themselves and given themselves sincerely to others, helped them in their time of need, comforted them in their grief, and lifted them from the sorry drudgery of this world. Jose W. Diokno was not an ordinary Filipino the way most of us are with our passports. He was a great Filipino, like all those paragons who make us proud.

My generation, which survived the Japanese Occupation, Marcos and the gross incompetence of the Cory and Erap administrations can make infallible judgments on our history and the decrepit quality of our leadership. History has always tested us the Revolution of 1896 and the subsequent coming of the American imperialists tested our grandfathers. The Japanese Occupation did the same to our fathers and my generation was sorely tried by the Marcos dictatorship. We know now why, alas, we failed.

We have honored so many political leaders who never deserved to be even on the shortest of pedestals, men who collaborated with our enemies, men who should be labeled as prostitutes and traitors.

Jose W. Diokno has yet to be fully recognized for what he has done, for what he stood for. At long last, there is a street named after him, a stretch of highway not often used, parallel to Roxas Boulevard; if comparisons are to be made, I would say that Pepe Diokno was greater than President Roxas although Diokno never achieved the eminence, the high office which Roxas reached as President of this Republic.

What is greatness in a man? Not all famous people to my mind are great in spite of their widespread popularity or fame; greatness presumes more than achievement, which makes an individual famous. Greatness is the essence of a person, the compassion that he exudes, the moral influence that he holds over people and events.

The young film director Pepe Diokno, who writes for this paper, has already won several awards for his brilliant work. I would urge him now to do a documentary on his grandfather and in this documentary, juxtapose Apolinario Mabini in it. It is my belief that Pepe Diokno, Sr. belongs to the same breed as the Sublime Paralytic. Like Mabini, Pepe Diokno possessed adamantine integrity; in his fight for the oppressed, he often stood fiercely alone from among his class of politicians. I am sure that among the very young today are many who will inherit not just his vision but the guts to fructify that vision.

Originally published in The Philippine STAR, October 3, 2010.

Filed under biographies

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