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Joker Arroyo, who died this week at age 88, was my introduction to human rights in the Philippines. 

Joker Arroyo, as Philippines senator, shows a chart on the process of canvassing during the official tally of presidential and vice presidential votes at the Congress in Manila's Quezon City June 20, 2004. © 2004 Reuters

All Filipinos have nicknames, but Joker was his real name, bestowed upon him by his card-playing father. But there was nothing funny about Joker’s work for FLAG, the Free Legal Assistance Group, during the Ferdinand Marcos dictatorship in the 1980s. Marcos would throw opposition activists and suspected leftists into prison at will, and Joker, along with other human rights lawyers, worked tirelessly – and at times successfully – to get them out. It was dangerous work: three human rights lawyers were murdered in 1984 and 1985 and many others joined their clients in prison. 

One of Joker’s clients was opposition Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., who was sentenced to death by a military tribunal. Three years after Ninoy was gunned down on the tarmac of Manila International Airport upon his return from exile, his wife, Corazon Aquino, took up the opposition mantle and ran for president in a rigged election. Joker was close by her side, and when Cory took office after the massive anti-Marcos People Power demonstrations in 1986, he became her executive secretary. 

It was an important government post that made me wonder whether Joker had been a sell-out – trading his career as a human rights lawyer to work in Malacañang Palace. I needn’t have worried. The still-powerful Armed Forces of the Philippines was hostile to this left-leaning advocate for the people and successfully pressured Aquino to sack him after a year and a half. He later became a congressman and spent 12 years in the Senate. In a legislature best known for its rampant pork-barrel spending, Joker maintained a low-key lifestyle and refused to play the spending game, earning the nickname the “Scrooge of Congress.”

Nearly three decades after the People Power Revolution, the Philippines still has many serious human rights problems. But the situation has never been as bleak as it was during the dark days of the Marcos years. Democracy does not require that all – or even many – people be principled voices for the oppressed. But it does demand a special few who are. Joker was one of those special few. 

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