What I've Learned

"Government is always and only an instrument of the people."—Jose W. Diokno

The former senator, Secretary of Justice, and CHR chair on courage, inclusive development, and yoga.
IMAGE Facebook.com/JoseWDiokno
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WHAT I'VE LEARNED

JOSE W. DIOKNO
(1922-1987) Former Senator of The Philippines,
founding chair of the Commission on Human Rights

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I wanted to study mechanical engineering because I like gadgets. My parents were pressuring me to study law and I was resisting. We compromised. I said, “I’ll just study commerce or business, because there are law subjects in business.” Well, I found out that it was the law subjects I liked best. And I didn’t tell my parents anything more, I just enrolled in law school.

The good lawyer, in preparing his case, is incredulous. He is a man who questions and bites. I like to think of myself as one of that.

There is a practical reason why the lawyer must have courage. That is, that a lawyer with courage will persuade a judge more easily than a lawyer without courage. When the judge knows that you will fight him all the way, as high as necessary, you can be sure that the judge will study your cases very well and make sure that the judgments, if they are going to be against you, are well studied.

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In court, I may be talking to the judge and my attention may appear to be centered fully on him, but I am watching the adverse party and all his known witnesses. I watch how they move, I watch how they talk. I try to see what degree of education they have even before they take the witness stand. If it is a very important case, I usually bring an associate and that’s his job—to be my other pair of eyes and see exactly what is happening. So, warn your witnesses not to be talkative while they are in the courtroom or in the premises.

Katarungan. Our language employs the same word, katarungan, for both justice and fairness, as it does for both justice and equity. And although we use a native word, karapatan, for right, we use a Spanish derivative, pribilehiyo, for privilege. So it seems logical to conclude that the fundamental element in the Filipino concept of justice is fairness; and that privilege and naked power—two of the worst enemies of fairness—are alien to the Filipino mind.

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"Do we mean by development that we are developing a better people—people with a conscience, people with a heart, people with the guts to stand up and defend those rights?"

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Filipinos seek God’s help because we have been made to believe we cannot help ourselves. Religion in the past contributed to our sense of powerlessness. The Church is changing now, but much of the sense of powerlessness remains, and since this makes many of us seek a father in earth as in heaven, this makes it easy for government to be authoritarian, to manipulate and to mislead.

Authoritarianism does not let people decide; its basic premise is that people do not know how to decide. So it promotes repression, not development, repression that prevents meaningful change, and preserves the structure of power and privilege. Development is not just providing people with adequate food, clothing, and shelter; many prisons do as much. Development is also people deciding what food, clothing, and shelter are adequate, and how they are to be provided.

I did yoga while I was in solitary confinement. I also did indoor exercise, like stationary jogging. And walking inside the room, pacing it. I got into the practice of really observing everything. I was even beginning to train a small colony of ants in my room.

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Most political prisoners were married. When the husband was detained, his wife was reduced to living on charity, and his children forced to drop out of school. When the wife was detained— and in some cases, both husband and wife were—the children were left motherless.

I had met a young man before martial law. He was a university student, a leader: brilliant, articulate, involved. That day in the courtroom he sat in a rattan chair, almost motionless, staring blankly ahead, his mouth half open, totally oblivious to the people and the chatter around him; for he had been brutally detained under martial law; punished so repeatedly and so brutally, and subjected to so large a dose of what the military call the truth serum, that his mind had cracked. He is confined, to this day, in the mental ward of a military hospital. Beside him stood his wife, straight and proud, one hand lightly resting on the crown of his head, the other touching his shoulder tenderly yet defiantly, ready to spring on anyone who might still wish to hurt her husband.

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Marcos had built his entire program on the principle of depending on the U.S. and Japan and getting all the loans that he could. We just build our nation on the principle of depending on ourselves and getting as loans only what we need, not what we can get.

What do we mean by development and growth? Do we mean only that we will become richer? Do we mean only that we will have automobiles, radios, televisions, that we can eat in restaurants like A&W? Is that what we mean solely by development, or do we mean by development that we are developing a better people—people with a conscience, people with a heart, people with the guts to stand up and defend those rights?

Our elite gained access to their world of privilege, as elites always have, by being close to government, whether that government was Spanish, American, or the Marcos family. Their ostentation creates great social tension because they do not invest their money in ways that would develop our economy or create new jobs. The elite have chosen to live behind heavily guarded walls, either because they are afraid of the people or unwilling to mix with them.

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Society can only act through government once a society reaches a certain degree of complexity, as almost all societies have. But government always remains only an agent of society; it never becomes society itself; it never becomes the people themselves. It is always and only an instrument of the people.

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This story originally appeared in Esquire Philippines' August 2014 issue.

*Minor edits have been made by the EsquireMag.ph editors.

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