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Chel Diokno on running for senator: ‘Fight the fear’

Nikko Dizon

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Chel Diokno on running for senator: ‘Fight the fear’

LeAnne Jazul

'I just couldn't sit and watch it happen,' says human rights lawyer Chel Diokno as he tells Rappler why he decided to run for the Senate at this time of extrajudicial killings

MANILA, Philippines – It was around this time two years ago, when over dinner with fellow human rights lawyers, Jose Manuel “Chel” Diokno said that people must “fight the fear” as the Duterte administration muzzled critics and its war against illegal drugs began to claim thousands of lives. 

“I felt it at the pit of my stomach. It was exactly the same feeling I had 45 years ago [when] I was a young boy and Martial Law was declared. It was the same kind of fear, same kind of state violence. And I knew that something had to be done about it,” Diokno, 57, told Rappler.

Diokno, son of the late senator Jose “Ka Pepe” Diokno, the country’s “father of human rights,” embarked on a series of lectures in colleges and universities, emphasizing the need for government to follow the legal system. It was a low-key effort, but the teacher that he is, Diokno believes in the importance of educating the people, especially the youth.

The Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) founded by Ka Pepe, which Diokno now heads, took on cases of victims of extrajudicial killings and that of Davao Death Squad (DDS) whistleblower, Arturo Lascañas. As FLAG’s national chairman, Diokno issued statements critical of the administration.

His friends worried that President Duterte might go after him, like what happened to Senators Leila de Lima and Antonio Trillanes IV. But Diokno, founding dean of the De La Salle University College of Law, didn’t care.

Out of comfort zone

Last week, Diokno found himself behind a podium at packed gymnasium in Marikina City. It wasn’t for a lecture on law and human rights, which he did quite often.

In the audience were supporters of the opposition from all walks of life, Vice President Leni Robredo, Trillanes, Liberal Party members and allies, and former president Benigno Aquino III – whose father, Ninoy, was detained and placed in solitary confinement like Ka Pepe during the Marcos dictatorship.

Diokno – professor, law dean, and human rights lawyer –  stood before the crowd as one of the 8 senatorial candidates of the LP-led coalition for the 2019 midterm elections. (WATCH: Opposition coalition introduces final Senate slate)

“It was unreal,” Diokno said. He smiled, shaking his head in disbelief. Running for public office wasn’t what he had in mind when he began his personal crusade to fight the fear, to fight a looming dictatorship.

Not one of Ka Pepe and Ka Nena’s 10 children had ever considered joining politics. Diokno said he had been asked back in the late 1990s, “but I never had any inclination [towards politics].” 

Last year, friends began asking him to consider joining the 2019 senatorial race. Diokno said the idea “got traction” only until a few months ago.

With the country increasingly becoming under the “influence of fear, violence, and lies,” Diokno was convinced to step out of his comfort zone and run for senator.

“I’ve always loved the law and it has always been my passion,” said Diokno, who earned his law degree from the Northern Illinois University in the US. He passed the bar in both the State of Illinois and in the Philippines. (He also studied in La Salle Greenhills and UP Diliman).

“What happened in this administration really affected me not just as a lawyer but as a person because I saw the law destroyed little by little. I saw all the foundations of what is supposed to be a democratic form of government crumbling and I felt I just couldn’t sit and watch it happen,” he said.

Diokno told his 6 children first. His decision to join the Senate race was “dependent on whether or not they would have issues with it.” Being a politician’s son, Diokno said he knew how politics could turn their lives upside down. “Not one of the 6 objected. All were very supportive,” he said.

Unsullied name

In this protest against the administration, Diokno brings with him his father’s unsullied name, continuing Ka Pepe’s fight against authoritarian rule.

At the heart of his campaign is the pursuit of justice for all. It’s not the most exciting of national issues, but Diokno believes justice must be part of the national discourse. He vows to make people understand why talking about justice is just as important as talking about Manila’s traffic or our slow internet speed.

Part of Diokno’s lecture series on martial law, the judicial system, and human rights is a discussion on how Ferdinand Marcos single-handedly eroded judicial independence.

The irony was not lost on those who still remember history when Diokno and the strongman’s eldest daughter, Imee Marcos, filed their certificates of candidacies (COCs) simultaneously at the Commission on Elections (Comelec). They were seated a few feet away from each other. (READ: Awkward! Imee Marcos, Chel Diokno file COCs same time)

“I think it’s just the way the gods are playing this election that it happened that way. When my father stood up during the early part of martial law and said, ‘I’ve had enough’, I think he saw the need for a different kind of governance… I guess I got that from him. I think that I cannot agree that those types of politicians are going to possess the same kind of power that they had before,” Diokno said on Rappler’s #TheLeaderIWant series.

NEW TERRAIN. Chel Diokno with the opposition slate during their October 24, 2018 launch. File photo by Jire Carreon/Rappler

Diokno said he doesn’t hold a grudge in his heart, even with the hardships his family endured during the Marcos dictatorship. “I remember one thing my dad taught all of us when we were young, was never to hold rancor, never to hold any hatred against anyone. As he said, it will just eat you up inside.”

But the Marcoses must still be held accountable for their transgressions to the Filipino people, while being given the chance to defend themselves, Diokno emphasized.

Diokno believed that President Rodrigo Duterte continues to be popular because “he was able to ride on the people’s hunger for justice.”

“The problem is [the people] thought this administration could deliver justice. But what they didn’t realize is that the justice of this government is justice from the barrels of guns. And that is not going to provide a lasting solution to our problems,” he said.

“They tell us there [are] no EJKs (extrajudicial killings). But we know, the people know, there are EJKs. They tell us we have sovereignty. No one is invading our territory. But we know what is happening in the West Philippine Sea. We know who are stealing our fishermen’s catch,” Diokno said.

He said it is time to “speak truth to power.”

Uphill climb

Diokno, his family, and their supporters all know that it is going to be an uphill climb for him. He is nowhere near the top 20 in the recent surveys.

Diokno acknowledged that he isn’t charismatic and outgoing like his father. “I have been an introvert ever since I was a kid. Make me choose between going to a party and reading a nice book, I will choose reading a nice book. And that is probably my biggest challenge in the campaign.”

Diokno’s campaign team and group of supporters – at the moment – are among the smallest there is, even in the opposition coalition. But what they lack in numbers, they make up with their commitment to making their candidate win.

“I believe in what he stands for – the rule of law, respect for human rights, intelligence, excellence in service,” a Diokno believer named Dia told Rappler when she joined Diokno at the Commission on Elections.

“The fact that he is standing for what is right, what is just, I think that is already a win for us,” Dia said. She finds inspiration, too, in the fact that Robredo began at the bottom of the surveys but eventually won.

Diokno’s children and siblings are the essential cogs in his campaign. His 3 older children – Pepe, Abe, and Inez – now have daily tasks to do. Another daughter, Laya, a law student, will be actively joining the team soon after the semester ends. Diokno’s two youngest children, Julio and Ian, are still in college and high school, respectively, but they would also be doing what they could to help in their Dad’s campaign. 

Diokno’s sisters Cookie, Maris, and Maitet are all involved in the day-to-day leading to the official campaign period in February next year.

Diokno’s own son, Pepe, the young and accomplished director, is at the helm of his video campaign materials, already giving the shy professor an edge.

Diokno’s campaign color – mint green to his generation, teal to the millennials – has been described as a daring choice, as it has never been used. But it’s easy on the eyes, bright, happy, and full of hope.  

Exactly the kind of future Chel Diokno dreams for the nation. –

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.