"‘Wag mainit ulo, Chel ka lang," he tweeted recently, addressing the President. Portrait by Jilson Tiu
Culture Spotlight

This human rights lawyer wants your vote for a senate seat—but he won’t sing and dance

But he can throw a joke or two. Audrey Carpio trails an Otso Diretso sortie in a fire-razed community in Addition Hills to get a glimpse of the enigma that is Chel Diokno, heir to the country’s “grand nationalists,” the youth’s “woke lolo,” and his party’s “voice of justice.”
Audrey Carpio | Mar 16 2019

Chel Diokno, the Otso Diretso senatorial candidate whose awareness rating still hovers on the lower end, gained a bit of virality after he was asked a wily question at the Fast Talk segment of an ABS-CBN Harapan debate. Who would he give the last life vest to on a sinking ship: President Duterte or former President Arroyo? Diokno replied he would keep the vest for himself, an answer which elicited much laughter.

On March 12, as he addressed a crowd of evacuees of the fire which razed a neighborhood in Addition Hills last February and displaced some 1000 families, he walked back his answer. “If asked again, I would say that I would give the life vest to all of you. Us candidates, if we win a seat in the Senate, it is because you put us there. You own the position,” he said in Filipino. Tama, tama! a few agreed. Diokno continued, stressing the need to elect officials not on the basis of their song-and-dance routines but on their track record of public service and ability to craft laws that actually help the people. Mag-research kayo! someone heckled.

Listening to a group of women in Addition Hills, Mandaluyong in early March. “I’m a human rights lawyer who has spent 30 years defending students, teachers, farmers, and workers, so I know what injustice feels like.” Photo by Jilson Tiu

The audience, who had lost everything in the fire and had not much more to lose, was listening.

“I’m a human rights lawyer who has spent 30 years defending students, teachers, farmers, and workers, so I know what injustice feels like,” Diokno tells them. He may not dance or put on a show, but he promises to fight for your basic rights.

A block down from the Hardin ng Pagasa, where the fire victims were temporarily relocated, another crowd gathered for a dialogue from some members and representatives of the Otso Diretso slate (the Straightful Eight, if you like). On stage, a few kids dance to the group jingle; thankfully, no “otso otso” moves in sight. This particular barangay had lost a few of their residents in the drug war, and I am told that it’s the reason many will not come out to show support for the opposition group.

The candidates gave their respective spiels after their respective jingles were played and danced to (Hilbay’s reggae-tinged tune was particularly catchy). Election lawyer Romy Macalintal, representing the seniors, worked the audience like a pro, while the fiery Samira Gutoc, who stood for women and Muslim rights, gave an impassioned speech about her hometown of Marawi.  Pilo Hilbay’s brother subbed for him, relating how the bar topnotcher and former solicitor general came from an impoverished background in Tondo, while a Magdalo colleague talked about Gary Alejano’s values as a soldier and patriot.

He's not Dilawan; he's Teal-awan. Pausing for our photographer in Batasan Hills. Photo by Jilson Tiu


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Diokno, for his part, was introduced as the heir to the legacy of our country’s “grand nationalists,” referring of course to his father, the late senator Jose “Pepe” W. Diokno, who founded the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG) in 1974 to help victims of Martial Law. Chel was 11 years old when his father was imprisoned by Marcos, and 13 when he was released. His worldview would be forever affected by those events, and the path to becoming a human rights lawyer himself had been irrevocably laid.

When Diokno faces an audience, he speaks in a quiet, modulated manner. As the founding dean of the DLSU College of Law, he retains the authority of a distinguished professor. The youth have been tagging him as “woke lolo” for his progressive views on LGBTQ issues, divorce, and medical marijuana—although he is only 58 years old and has no known grandchildren.

After the Addition Hills sortie, Diokno was scheduled for a Facebook Live interview with Christy Fermin and Lolit Solis, who wanted some tea from the attorney. They sat in Fermin’s art gallery, which seems to be permanently festooned with Christmas décor, and tried to discuss movies. Diokno’s son Pepe, of course, is the respected film director and industry insider, but Diokno, it turns out, was a voice-over talent on Erik Matti’s film Buy Bust—a little known tidbit about the senatorial candidate that could have deeper significance. In the movie trailer, Diokno narrates, in his reserved tones, a Nazi-era Bertolt Brecht poem that was translated into Filipino by another Martial Law activist, Pete Lacaba.  “Truly, I live in dark times,” the poem goes. Talagang madilim, itong aking panahon.

Is ths Diokno's equivalent of kissing babies? Photo by Jilson Tiu

Interviewers always ask Diokno, why run, and why now, and he will always say, “I saw what was happening to the country and I couldn’t remain silent anymore.” Since the administration unleased its war on low-level drug personalities, Diokno has been openly speaking out and trying to help families of the victims through FLAG, which he chairs. Instead of pressing charges however, which many families are too scared to do at the moment, FLAG lawyers and other human rights workers have begun the task of documenting all the evidence and gathering the facts needed to pursue these cases to their full extent in the future. “I personally feel that the day of reckoning will come,” Diokno says. “And we have to be prepared.”

The EJKs were just the beginning of Diokno’s great agitation. He lists the attempt to cow the senate into submission by jailing and harassing Duterte’s most vocal critics. The attempt to silence the judiciary by ousting its Chief Justice. The attack on the Commission on Human Rights, by taking away its budget. The attack on media, by going after Maria Ressa—the institutions that a democracy holds dear are all under threat. “We are seeing a deliberate attempt to lessen the democratic space,” he says. “Given my experience with Martial Law, I couldn’t take it anymore. There really is no choice but to try and find a way to help others who may not have the courage to stand up.”

The irony is that when Diokno Sr. was released from unlawful detention in 1974, he turned his back on politics, devoting himself to defending peasants, tribal groups, social workers, and other victims of abuse. Chel knew his father more as a human rights lawyer, and he cut his teeth in the legal world from watching the older man in court even as a 13-year-old. Now, Diokno is throwing himself headlong into the dirty world of politicking, but he is keeping his head up and is certainly holding his own. The President has unsurprisingly spewed out some random insults to the Otso Diretso members (minus Gutoc, because as we all know, he “respects” women). With Chel, all Duterte could come up with was that he was not like his father, and that Chel was a funny name. To which Diokno tweeted, “Salamat sa plug, Pangulo! C-H-E-L as in ‘Wag mainit ulo, Chel ka lang.’” Props to whichever Diokno offspring is manning his socials, we like this style of cool-headed trolling. 

“I personally feel that the day of reckoning will come,” Diokno says. “And we have to be prepared.” Photo by Jilson Tiu

While the Eight all stand together on a united platform, Diokno’s personal advocacies are naturally centered on justice and judicial reform. “Boses ng Katurungan” or “voice of justice”— emblazoned against a millennial teal background—is his rallying cry.

“Justice has a lot of different aspects,” he says. “There is climate justice, gender justice, social justice, conjugal justice—they are different faces of the same thing. But we’ll never address the core issues of the country without fixing the justice system.” The word justice can come off as very philosophical and abstract, and there were initial concerns that it wouldn’t catch on. But as Diokno began his campaign around the neighborhoods, interacting with people and listening to their needs, he realized that everyone had so much in common. “In truth, we experience injustice every day. It is a universal feeling and ordinary people can connect with that.”


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With his father, the late senator Jose “Pepe” W. Diokno

As a student at the Northern Illinois University where he studied law

With family, graduating at NIU as a magna cum laude in 1966

With the family visiting at NIU

With students. Diokno has endeared himself with some members of the youth for his progressive views on LGBTQ issues, divorce, and medical marijuana

At the De La Salle College of Law where he is founding dean