Lorenzo Tañada undaunted in line of fire
(There was a time when our leaders were made of sterner stuff. Given the current composition and actuations of members of the executive and of Congress, the traditional breeding ground of our country's national leaders, it is perhaps instructive to "return to basics," so to speak, by recalling how there was a time when truly great minds and hearts in the august chambers truly inspired the youth. Among them was one who stood out for a lifetime of service to country and the example of unparalleled courage.)
"Men in public life are often faced with the disheartening task of making difficult decisions. I have always tried, in my humble way to stand for principles, to base my actions on certain political ideals even at the risk of political annihilation."
– Lorenzo Tañada
Statesman Lorenzo M. Tañada is the only senator of the Philippine Republic to have served for nearly a quarter of a century – 24 years to be exact – successively and faithfully from the start of the Senate in 1948 to its dismantling in 1972 upon the declaration of martial law, when soldiers padlocked its doors and the dictatorship shut down Congress to silence voices like his.
He is also one of the few of his generation to have lived to see two of his aspirations fulfilled: the downfall of the dictatorship by means of the joined hands of a largely peaceful People Power resistance and the withdrawal of foreign military installations in national territory – which he not only witnessed within his lifetime but also helped bring about as an engaged and often enraged participant.
In the pantheon of political leaders in the country, Tañada stands as a symbol of courage, integrity, love of country joined to love of family, loyalty to his principles, and the capacity to overcome adversity from his youth. He strove mightily to advance nationalist politics, and in the process even suffered a number of political setbacks. Even in his advanced age as the venerable "old man" of the "parliament of the streets," Tañada braved the dangers as he risked life and limb to bring people together to put an end to the Marcos dictatorship.
Memories of Tañada in my heart
There is an image etched in my heart of Lorenzo Tañada in his 80s emerging from a cloud of tear-gas smoke, striding bravely down the street propped up by his cane, and confronting soldiers carrying pointed guns while he intoned: "In God's name, stop shooting our people!"
It was an incident which ironically took place at the "Welcome Rotonda" between Quezon Boulevard and España one September afternoon in 1984 when soldiers assaulted protestors with tear-gas, water cannons, batons, stones and guns to prevent them from advancing towards Malacañang.
We were linked in arms ("kapit-bisig"), son Bobby on his left and I on the right, together with a number of brave souls such as Rene Saguisag, Butz Aquino, Tito Guingona, Behn Cervantes, Nonoy Sarabia, Noel Tolentino, and companions on the frontline whose names now escape me. The police charged not once but thrice, and on all occasions, Tañada refused to budge, though his eyes dimmed by smoke emitted by tear-gas canisters hurled at the "frontline of fire." And when the smoke finally cleared, he strode alone – unafraid, undaunted, fierce from rage – and commanded the men in uniform to put down their guns. And, they did!
A second image comes to mind. Lorenzo Tañada in a wheelchair with fists clenched after his son, the senator Bobby Tañada, the act’s principal sponsor, gave an explanation of his vote on the US Bases Treaty: "Permit me, finally, to pay homage to a man under whose caring arms I grew up to learn love of country above self, a man who spent a lifetime of untiring struggle for nationalism and independence, a man whose dream of freedom for his people may soon be realized by the vote we are to take, a man whom I am deeply proud to call Tatay (Father)."
The image is so clear as if it was yesterday of the grim man in tears while a broad smile threatened to break out any time as the Senate and the entire gallery stood in respect and in awe – here he was a front-row witness to history-in-the-making for a struggle that consumed almost his entire life.
A third image brings me back to his library in the ancestral home in New Manila one evening soon after the dictatorship had fallen where he was going over copious notes as we discussed a draft I was working on entitled, "The Sovereign Quest," dealing with an issue close to his heart: the dismantling of the foreign military bases. With his magnifying lenses he was reading the footnotes and suggested further annotations. He was a UP law grad and a Harvard scholar, trained in doing rigorous research and marshalling arguments in a most convincing fashion.
He had known my father since together with a few others they were both co-founders of the Civil Liberties Union even before our country gained independence. He fondly called my father Paulino, "Nino," and shared the story of how he accompanied my father's efforts to win the hand of my mother in marriage, and we talked about the note they wrote together in Spanish written to Lolo Pepe – the father of the young Rosalinda – attesting to Nino's character. He combined scholarship with a kind and gentle heart; he could talk politics, family and friendship all in one breath.
He then regaled me with the story of my mother who was waiting in his office during a busy day wanting to see him for advise since I was studying in Latin America during the early part of the martial law period: "To make sure I would see her, your mother slipped a note to me," and he continued by revealing what the note contained. "My son, Edmundo, is scheduled to be shot at dawn tomorrow in Mexico where he is studying. I need to talk with you." It was her "dramatic" way of saying to me – it is urgent and need your advice to write to my son. Please dissuade him from returning home right away. And, so I did – and wrote the letter. That was the "old man" Tañada I knew.
Brave voice in Senate
Jose W Diokno who served in same Senate as he did and who was made from the same stern stuff, wrote about his colleague, "Tanny":
For half a century, Tanny has been in the forefront of the nationalist struggle. He has sacrificed much, seeking no gain for himself, only to defend the patrimony of the Filipino people, to uphold their individual and collective rights and freedoms, to help them attain true independence, and to promote their well-being. His integrity and courage have earned him the respect of our people, and his unselfish and unstinted efforts on their behalf have earned him their deep affection.
Tanny carries the scars of many battles. As he says, he has won some and lost some. But he rebounds from every defeat, moves onward after every victory – and always he keeps fighting.
Time has not cooled his ardor nor blurred his vision. He refutes the saying that old soldiers fade away. Tanny's star has risen with the passing years.
Jovito Salonga who became Senate president when the issue of the military bases was put to a vote recalled that for Tanny, it was not so much a case of my government, right or wrong, but rather "my government when right, to be kept right and when wrong, to be made right."
Voted consistently as an outstanding senator by both the Philippines Free Press and the Senate Press Club, he "distinguished himself as a fearless, hard-hitting and uncompromising fighter for civil liberties, labor rights, clean and honest government, and the protection of the national patrimony and sovereignty." That was the way he was seen by those who closely observed his work in the legislature.
Never wavered vs dictatorship
Senators Pepe Diokno and Ninoy Aquino were imprisoned by the Marcos dictatorship at the onset of martial law, and Tañada who was abroad at that time rushed back and defended them with all the passion he could muster. He visited Ninoy regularly and gave him fraternal advice as well as legal counsel. He was not afraid to take risks to defend prisoners who were jailed for their political beliefs.
To Ninoy Aquino in his solace in jail, he gave solid advice: "Do not and never despair, because this could only be a time of testing. Believe me, in God's own season, justice will ultimately triumph."
On 29 August 1973 from his cell in Fort Bonifacio, Ninoy Aquino wrote his colleague and counsel Tañada:
You never lost perspective of history's cold judgment and my instincts told me that you were fighting a greater cause, greater than my life or yours, and you were fired up by the obsession to right a terrible wrong. It was Quixotic inclination with all its dangerous consequences but somehow I was also lured by the temptation to tilt the windmills especially at a time when so many of our national leaders would rather be cautious than courageous. Your unshakeable conviction inspired me to gamble with my life.
I heard an inner voice tell me that your assessment that an oppressed people will not and cannot remain oppressed forever is not only accurate but realistic. I was convinced that your one per cent would someday be one hundred per cent….
He then continued:
Like the Man from La Mancha you stormed the ramparts of the Supreme Court. And, grudgingly, the knights of the Court yielded to your incessant assaults and ordered the fortress opened. At a time when our hearts were dried up and parched, you came with your shower of mercy. The stakes are not mere fortunes. My very life is on the line. Prudence, we are told is the better part of valor, and there were very convincing arguments to take the road of compromise.
And when I was about "to lose the grace of my life," you came with your burst of song. It was the song of freedom, older than Abraham. We may be small in number but big in our commitment, you said. Your idealism had the exuberance of youth, ironical for a man in the twilight of his years. This I thought was the secret of your agelessness. Hitching my life to yours, I knew I could not go wrong. And so like Sancho Panza, I followed my Don Quixote.
Lorenzo Tañada inspired generations, not only his but also the next. And, if this our generation has faltered and perhaps failed, now we must turn to successor generations so that they may listen and learn from his life’s testimony of courage under fire. In so doing, the quest continues "to right the wrongs" and, in a manner of speaking, to "do battle for what is right."
The constitutional scholar Joaquin Bernas, SJ, described his legacy in the following manner: "Human rights, the rule of law, the right of the Filipino for his own sovereign state – this is the truth that he has proclaimed in season or out of season, as political leader or simple lawyer, honored, heralded or derided, from his earliest youth to his advanced age. And the truth rings sharper and clearer for all those who have ears to hear."
In a period when our world confronts momentous challenges and our country grapples with major crises, it perhaps is time for more inspired and courageous leadership. It is thus sad when some of our leaders – president and legislators have engaged in squabbles, when the leadership in the Houses built to represent our people are beholden and in disarray. It is for this reason that it is timely to recall the courage, wisdom and the example of the Senate’s longest-serving Senator, Lorenzo Tañada. He will be a beacon to others who aspire to lead and take on a life of public service. Rare and unique is the path travelled by Lorenzo Tañada. To the successor generation, a final word: courage is contagious. Tañada indeed inspires! – Rappler.com