“I’m sorry, I’m not feeling well,” former Senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr. said, trying to complete his sentences in between bouts of coughing as he took his seat at his favorite Japanese restaurant in Quezon City. “I haven’t had much sleep. At 85, some days are good, others are, well, like this.”
On that Tuesday afternoon in March 2019, he granted ABS-CBN reporters an interview to speak about various issues — from what he thought about his son’s senatorial campaign to things he may want to include in an article about his legacy that would be published after he passes on.
There were no cameras, just smart phones. But as soon as he knew they started recording his raspy voice, his back straightened automatically, and he mustered enough energy to speak as if nothing was ailing him.
“It’s hard to justify the Marcos era,” he said when asked how he felt about his son, Koko, sharing a senatorial ticket with the daughter of the late dictator who tried in vain to silence him for many years. “How many paved roads can equal one life lost? That’s why it’s hard for me to accept Imee [Marcos] as a candidate.”
Pimentel was a young delegate to the Constitutional Convention in 1971 and, after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law the following year, Pimentel opposed moves to draft a constitution that would please the sitting president. That caused him his freedom.
He was jailed in Camp Crame for three months and set free in time for the signing of the Marcos-dictated charter.
It would not be the first time for him to be thrown behind bars.
“Even if I was arrested four times, I was never mistreated by the military,” he recalled.
And his fellow inmates also accorded him special treatment.
“I was a VIP in the bartolina with 24 others,” he said. “The running joke [among the prisoners] then was ‘do not touch this man, as he will be our lawyer after all this is over’. So every morning when I wake up, there will be coffee already made for me.”
“That’s why when Johnny [Enrile] said that no one was jailed during martial law, he clearly forgot about me. Nagka Alzheimer’s na yata (I guess he got Alzheimer’s disease),” he said, managing to chuckle while shaking his head in reaction to the statement made by his former Senate colleague.
Pimentel would go on to run for mayor of his hometown in Cagayan de Oro with a mere P2,000 to start his campaign. His entire ticket under the coalition banner of the National Union for Democracy would later beat the Marcos administration’s Kilusang Bagong Lipunan.
And his experience in local government started what would later become a passion project: local government reform.
From his present-day vantage point, the retired politician and street parliamentarian said that while there are still flaws in the Philippines’ young democracy, these are still arguably better times than the dark years he had seen.
“We have advanced several miles from the tyrannical rule [during] martial law,” his voice was breaking but he was now in his element. “Now of course people would argue that there are still abuses. Well, then that reflects on the people.”
“Good governance does not depend on the governor alone but on the people,” he explained.
Then he talked about how the Local Government Code — a landmark law he authored as a senator — empowered leaders at the grassroots level of governance.
“Many of the cities that were basically unheard of before are now modern and developed,” he said.
The other bills Pimentel sponsored that became laws had a recurring theme: empowering ordinary Filipinos and championing democracy. These include the Cooperative Code, the Philippine Sports Commission Act, the Act Creating the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and the People's Small-Scale Mining Act. He also authored and co-sponsored the Generic Drugs Act and the Act Establishing the Philippine Police under a Reorganized Department of Interior and Local Government.
He was part of the group senators dubbed the "Magnificent 12" who voted against the extension of the Philippine-US Bases Treaty, resulting in the departure of American troops from local soil for the first time in a century.
As Senate President in 2001, Pimentel presided over the impeachment trial of his friend, then President Joseph Estrada. Personal ties notwithstanding, he was one of those who voted in favor of unsealing an envelope said to contain evidence of the President’s corruption. They lost the vote, but the ensuing mass protests by millions of Filipinos angered by the development led to Estrada’s ouster.
“I vote to do so because that was the only way to determine whether or not the contents of the envelope are relevant or material to the case at bar,” he announced to his colleagues during the trial. “Because of this development, Mr. Chief Justice, I realize that the [‘no’ votes] have it. And therefore, I resign my presidency of the Senate as soon as my successor is elected.”
Looking back at the things he had done — and those he had refused to do — the retired lawyer, lawmaker, politician and street parliamentarian says he is content. Pimentel did all he could do for the country he loves.
The last of a dying breed of Filipino statesmen, the country is poorer with his passing.