Office of the Vice President
30 July 2017
BLESSING AND LAUNCH OF THE IGNATIAN LEGAL APOSTOLATE OFFICE (ILAO), Alingal Hall, Ateneo de Naga University, Naga City, 29 July 2017
Cong. Gabby Bordado; Fr. Jun Viray; Dean Che Carpio; Atty Nina Rances-Lao; the members of the judiciary who are here with us this afternoon; faculty, non-teaching staff, students, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen: Marhay na hapon saindo gabos!
I spoke before the BCBP this morning and I spoke extemporaneously. It took me almost an hour. Kaya sabi ko sa staff ko, “Promise, magbabasa na lang ako ng speech mamayang hapon.” So that I will be assured that I will only speak for 10 minutes.
I am very happy to be with you today at the launch of the Ignatian Legal Apostolate Office. Establishing a center like ILAO is a timely response to the call of the times. This will hopefully cultivate a mindset that lawyering is a vocation and not just a profession. So, let me commend the Ateneo de Naga University, under the leadership of Fr. Jun Viray, the Ateneo De Naga College of Law, under Dean Che Carpio, and of course Atty. Nina Rances-Lao for making this happen.
In June 1975, Jose “Pepe” Diokno addressed a group of lawyers in Davao, when Marcos was still in power and the whole country was placed under Martial Law. He said:
“Our own time reveals that when violence, intimidation, and threats put on the garb of legality, people are induced to submission and timidity. Many are lulled to the comfort of complacency and acquiescence. The saddest thing that has happened to our people is that too many of them are either confused as to the real issues, or have taken the attitude of indifference, or have deluded themselves into believing that the present state of affairs is ideal and permanent.”
Nineteen seventy-five igtong pigtaram pero garo ngunyan very appropriate, even during these times. Well, these are really extraordinary times. Here and abroad, governments are undergoing major changes. Wars and violence continue to claim lives. Populism is on the rise. Democracy is in crisis, and people are questioning the capabilities of our traditional institutions. Here in the Philippines, hate, anger, and divisiveness continue to create massive tears in our social fabric.
When we reclaimed democracy in 1986, a sense of hope swept across the nation. We had another opportunity to change our leaders and fix our institutions. But 30 years after, we still find ourselves in a quandary. Why do so many Filipinos still suffer in poverty? Despite being one of the fastest growing economies in the region, growth and development still haven’t reached many parts of our country. Some of us see these challenges as a sign that democracy is not working.
So it is no surprise that many of our people have turned to desperate measures. Many cling to the idea of saviors who promise the swiftest, and sometimes the most brazen, of solutions.
Shockingly, the rule of law has taken a back seat, as if it is merely a convenience our nation can do without.
But the answers to our country’s problems do not lie in the hands of a person or a single agency. The promise of change is best fulfilled by the ordinary Filipino. And as lawyers and students of law, it is our obligation to ensure that their basic rights are guarded, and the rule of law is respected.
That is why today’s gathering is very important. If we are to truly strengthen our legal system, then we must examine the kind of lawyers that we produce. It is not enough that we know the law and can remember rulings with exactness. We must be brave enough to inject integrity, empathy, and compassion in our work, and to see the world in the eyes of the person in front of us.
This is something I learned when I worked for SALIGAN, a legal resource NGO. For almost a decade, my fellow SALIGAN lawyers and I would spend days and weeks in far-flung barangays, immersing in the lives of the poor. We would hike on mountains, walk through muddied trails, and cross rivers to reach isolated communities. There, we would organize the locals. We would listen to their stories of how some of our laws have become instruments of injustice. We saw how big companies would wage legal battles against the powerless, using their influence and resources to win cases.
SALIGAN opened my eyes to a different kind of lawyering. Instead of waiting for clients in air conditioned offices, we were the ones who went to them. Most of our days were spent with farmers and fisherfolk, indigenous people, the urban poor, laborers, women and children. We had no researchers or legal assistants. We did not even have our own drivers. We did everything ourselves. One man show kami. We mentored local leaders and offered paralegal trainings. We translated laws into their local dialect. Work was difficult and challenging, but it was where I found myself.
Ensuring access to legal services is a great step, but it is only a first step. As lawyers, our work needs to go beyond the four corners of the courts. That is because the work of empowerment is most critical in our communities, where citizens need to learn to stand on their own two feet and assert their rights. When the ordinary Filipino can assess his own situation, analyze his own context, and point out gaps in the legal system, he inspires others to fight for their rights.
Siguro nag tanong dito si Sumilao farmers. They have been here. Their story is a testament to this. Many of you know how farmers from Brgy. San Vicente in Sumilao, Bukidnon marched from Mindanao to Manila to demand agrarian justice and reclaim their ancestral land with the mentoring of alternative lawyers. Si opisina ni mi ang nag-handle ng kaso nila. In fact, we lost our head – si Bobby Gana. Bobby Gana and Caloy Ollado were members of the SALIGAN family. Nag-eroplano sila pa Sumilao, pero nag-crash si Cebu Pacific plane na sinakyan nila to Cagayan de Oro. We lost two of our best lawyers. But these farmers organized a movement and asserted their rights. In the end, they were able to reclaim the land that was rightfully theirs. Ngunyan nakua na ninda si saindang daga. We have been regularly visiting them. Hali sa mayo dakulaon na ang assets nila, and it has been very inspiring.
One of the beautiful things about that event was that it also inspired other similar groups, igwa kitang Banasi farmers opisina mini sa SALIGAN na nagkakamo sa inda – Banasi farmers from Bula, Camarines Sur, and fisherfolk and IP groups from Casiguran, Aurora – to stage their own marches and adopt the same advocacy. In fact, si pinakagurang duman sa grupo, Poblen Clavero, hali sa Banasi, 82 years old pero nagmamartsa pa.
The message is clear: each of us is called to build communities where everyone – regardless of social class, gender, religion, and background – is given the opportunity to grow. When ordinary people are treated as partners in achieving peace, justice, and development – democracy becomes a tangible reality.
These are the same lessons that inspire us now at the Office of the Vice President. Every week, since we assumed office last year, we visit the farthest and poorest barangays to listen to people who are voiceless and powerless. Si samuyang Biyernes, Sabado, paminsan hanggang Domingo, yaon kami sa pinakahararayo na mga lugar, para bisitahon si pinakapobre na mga communities.
We started with 50 communities in October, but now we’re adopting 132 already. Sa muya target 50 for one year. Then, ma-increase kami another 50 next year. Pero kapag nagbaba ka na sa lugar, pag mga si kataid niyang lugar, grabe man. You cannot turn your back and say, saka na. Saka mi na ika tatabangan. So right now, we’re helping 132 communities.
To me, the Vice Presidency is a chance to serve more of our people in the best way we know how. It is essentially just an expansion of my work in SALIGAN.
And I hope that because of ILAO, more of you would consider going to public service lawyering. With the opening of this new center, hopefully, students will be inspired to serve the poor. Fr. James Keenan, SJ once said, “Mercy is the willingness to enter into the chaos of another.”
Ultimately, we are reminded that the practice of law is really a vocation – an invitation to reach out to the lost, the last, and the least.
Once again, congratulations for putting up this office. Happy Feast of St. Ignatius to everyone.
Marhay na aldaw ulit saindo gabos!