Jose ‘Ka Pepe’ Diokno, quintessential nationalist

By Satur C. Ocampo
At Ground Level | The Philippine Star

Tomorrow marks the 90th birthday of Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno: nationalist, human rights defender, progressive intellectual, and more.

Had he lived as long as his colleague, Lorenzo “Ka Tanny” Tanada who, at 91, stood up from his wheelchair at the gallery to hail the Senate voting in 1991 that ended the US military bases’ presence in the Philippines one need not wonder how Ka Pepe would feel today.

Most probably he would be dismayed, yet undaunted, that American troops have returned and remained since 2002. He would vigorously oppose the bilateral talks to be held in March on the plan to expand US military-presence-cum-intervention in our national affairs.

Claro M. Recto, Jose P. Laurel, Tanada, and Diokno were the cogent, consistent, and courageous voices of nationalism in the Senate from the 1950s right up to 1972 when Congress was shut down by Ferdinand Marcos. After the deaths of Recto and Laurel in the 1960s, Tanada and Diokno forged on, alongside the rejuvenated progressive mass movement, to boot out the military bases as symbols of US hegemony.

When finally 12 senators, headed by Senate President Jovito R. Salonga, rejected the extension of the RP-US Military Bases Agreement defying President Cory Aquino who led a rally urging its extension Ka Pepe was no longer there. He succumbed to lung cancer on Feb. 27, 1987, a day after turning 65.

Tomorrow, at La Salle Greenhills, family and friends will celebrate Ka Pepe’s 90th birthday and observe his 25th death anniversary.

Gifted with exceptional intelligence, Ka Pepe breezed through his education at La Salle, reaping the highest honors.

He graduated valedictorian in high school, summa cum laude in commerce at 17, and topped the CPA exams under special dispensation (for being too young). He read his father’s law books through World War II and, under Supreme Court special dispensation (for not completing the course), took the 1944 bar exams. He came out on top with Salonga (who had finished his law course).

I had the good fortune to have closely associated and interacted with Ka Pepe and Ka Tanny.

In the late 1960s, Ka Tanny chaired the Movement for the Advancement of Nationalism of which I was a national council member. Then when Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus in 1971, Ka Pepe organized the Movement of Concerned Citizens for Civil Liberties that led big protest marches and rallies. I was with the coordinating group that met alternately at the Diokno residence in Magallanes Village and the National Press Club.

Under martial law, Ka Pepe and Ka Tanny became my defense lawyers (with Joker Arroyo) through seven years of trial for rebellion and subversion before a Special Military Commission. They were the stalwarts of the Free Legal Assistance Group, a nationwide network of pro bono human rights lawyers that Diokno founded after his two-year harrowing experience under military detention.

Ka Pepe took me into his confidence after he had ascertained that, despite undergoing severe physical and psychological torture, I hadn’t signed any “confession” or given information damaging to our cause. We talked lengthily whenever he visited us, political detainees, at the Bicutan Rehabilitation Center.

Once I asked him, “Will you run for president after Marcos is gone?” His reply: “What will I do with power?”

In the initial peace talks between the Cory government and the National Democratic Front of the Philippines, Ka Pepe headed the GRP panel, I, the NDFP’s. He was also the chair of the Presidential Committee on Human Rights.

At our preliminary talks, we agreed to put human rights first in the agenda of the negotiations. Among others, we both recommended the nullification of all the repressive decrees issued by Marcos and the immediate dismantling of paramilitary forces, mainly the CAFGU, for being human rights violators.

To Ka Pepe’s utter disappointment, Cory retained many of Marcos’ decrees, and kept the CAFGU under AFP supervision and control. The peace talks broke down in the wake of the Mendiola Massacre on Feb. 22, 1987 and never resumed during Cory’s presidency because of the military’s opposition.

How deeply was Ka Pepe affected by the Mendiola Massacre? Maris, his daughter, remarked: “It was the only time we saw him in near tears.”

On at least two other occasions Ka Pepe showed how soft his heart could be:

1. After seeing the severely tortured, stolid Monico Atienza embraced by his tearful, speechless wife, he wrote:

“As I looked at the couple, I saw in them the face of every Filipino, and I knew then that martial law could crush our bodies; it could break our minds; but it could not conquer our spirit. It may silence our voices and seal our eyes; but it cannot kill our hope nor obliterate our vision. We will struggle on, no matter how long it takes or what it costs, until we establish a just community of free men and women in our land…”

2. When my wife and I visited him at the Manila Doctors Hospital not long before he died, these were his parting words to Bobbie: “Take care of him.”

I was nearly in tears!

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February 25, 2012

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