A father’s pride sealed in writing: ‘That letter influenced me more than I credit.’ —Chel Diokno

June 16, 2019 – In conversation with Vinz Lamorena

According to one of Martial Law’s revered figures, a lawyer lives in and by the law. A lawyer strives for justice. A lawyer must work in freedom. A lawyer builds on facts.

In a letter he wrote during his detention, Jose W. Diokno, had these words for his son: I have loved the law; and have always loved being a lawyer. But I have never been prouder than the day, five Sundays ago, that you told me you wanted to study law. Regardless of what you may finally decide, the fact that you that you thought of becoming a lawyer despite my arrest and detention, allows me to hope I have not failed as a lawyer and a father.

The son is now 58 years old. He has spent the last 30 years of his life defending human rights, continuing the work his father introduced to him during his teenage years. It all began with a simple request—a list of law books to read. Chel Diokno’s remark gave birth to a letter he has grown to treasure throughout the years, backed with experience that continues to influence the choices he partakes.

What I learned from my father

58, educator and human rights lawyer

He wrote a letter for my coming of age. It was my father’s way of saying, “Now that you’re already a teenager, you’ve turned 13, there are things I want to tell you. We’ve never really had the chance to talk, and since I’m in jail this is the only way I can express them to you.”

That letter influenced me more than I credit. When I read it now, I realize many of the choices I made growing up, the choices I made when I took up and practiced law, were really based on the criteria he indicated in writing.

It was quite a challenge. At the back of my mind, I was making sure I don’t do anything that will destroy my father’s name. At the same time, I had to perform in a way that no one can say I’m a disgrace to my name.

When I was a new lawyer in court, the judges would seem to have the expectation that I would be as good as my father. While others who have crossed paths with him before gave me a harder time than the typical lawyer would have experienced.

I think part of the package was that I would do the kind of lawyering that he was doing. The very first thing I did was join the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG), the human rights organization he established. When I joined, I was a regular member who went through the exact same application the others have followed.

Once, my father said, “For every hour I spend in court, I spend 10 hours preparing outside, in my office.” I really took that to heart—to prepare in the same way my father did.

I remember the very first time I argued before the Supreme Court in the early 90s when several hundred public school teachers were dismissed. They had supposedly engaged in an illegal strike. It was a really challenging case for me to handle and the fact I had to argue in the Supreme Court was something else.

Perhaps one of the most important cases I handled was that of the Manalo brothers, the two farmers from Bulacan who were abducted and kept by the military for a long time before they were able to escape. It was a landmark case. It was a case where the parameters of what you can get from the Writ of Amparo began to be decided by the court.

Choosing to be a human rights lawyer was never a question for me. My childhood can easily be compartmentalized into two periods. First is from the time I was born until my father was arrested, when I grew up basically as one of the sons of a Senator.

The second is during the time my father was detained in 1972, until the year he died in 1987. He abandoned politics and became one of the first human rights lawyers in the Philippines.

When my father was released in 1974, I was 13 at that time. I was exposed to him as a lawyer doing human rights work. I used to accompany him to court every chance I would get. That didn’t stop with the court appearances, when he would meet up with his clients, he would call me and I would observe as he prepared a witness to testify. He took me to his pleadings. He would ask me to do research for him and make me read the transcripts of hearings.

In striving to be the best,
that builds character.
That forces you to push on
the positive side of yourself,
to appeal to your higher self.

My father never really gave us much, he was not one to preach. He wasn’t the type who would tell us what to do or how to do things. But I do recall one of the few pieces of advice he gave us. I was still very young at that time: Whatever it is that you choose to be, be the best you can.

It’s only later in life that I realized that’s such valuable advice. It’s not really about the result. It doesn’t really matter if you become the best, but in striving to be the best, that builds character. That forces you to push on the positive side of yourself, to appeal to your higher self.

We all have choices in life. We could easily give in to our weaknesses. But if you have that in mind—that you want to be the best—it really gives you something to strive for everyday. That had such a big influence on me.

His greatest gift to me was being my father. That’s a whole package in itself.

Bringing up kids, that’s such a big responsibility. It’s something going into that I had so many fears about—fearing that something might happen to your children, you’re afraid they’re not the way you expect them to turn out, you’re afraid you might not measure up as a father.

(RELATED READ: In his father’s footsteps)

One thing I was determined to do was to treat them the same way my father and mother treated us—not talking to them as kids, but seeing them as people who could already understand. That’s what can make me say that I really have a pretty good bond with my children.

My kids say I have the “dad humor.” That’s a side of me that I hardly ever show as a lawyer and a professional. It came out during the campaign, but that’s really how I view life. I think humor is so much a part of the Pinoy, and it’s also so much a part of me.

One of the main reasons why I decided to run was because of my kids. I could not and cannot accept that they will grow up in a country that has so much impunity where you have no accountability, where you have a double standard of justice for the powerful and the ordinary Filipino.

More broadly, I cannot accept the future generations of Filipinos will continue to grow up in a country that I grew up in where there’s so much injustice. 

I didn’t really have any political plans in the first place. My decision to run was not motivated by any personal or political interest, but rather because I just couldn’t accept the situation as it was and as it is.

I really learned a lot. My exposure prior the campaign was doing human rights work and law education as a dean. Although I was exposed to people that we would call are part of marginalized communities as a human rights lawyer, I was never exposed to the same degree as I was during the campaign. I really got to see how bad the situation is and how unjust our country is in so many ways, to so many of our people.

We are growing politically mature. Although none of the opposition candidates won, it was a more issue-oriented campaign because the opposition chose to talk about issues rather than personalities. That’s why you heard a lot about lowering the age of criminal liability, the West Philippine Sea, and so may other really important national issues.

I really hope thats the direction that we go in terms of electoral politics.

Photos by Sean Xie for alike.