Sonny Trillanes goes to war

He might win, or he might not. He is a fatalist, after all, and when the time comes, he will stand and fight—whether the enemy is a tentacle or a behemoth or a figment of the imagination of Antonio Trillanes IV

PATRICIA EVANGELISTA. Photo by Raymund AmonoyAntonio Trillanes IV is fighting a tentacle. He reminds you that it is only a tentacle, for he has fought the octopus and lived.

The tentacle, he says, is not only a tentacle. The tentacle is a lackey. The tentacle is a bully. The tentacle is a master manipulator. What the tentacle is not, and here the senator is certain, is invincible.

“From the outsider’s perspective Senator Enrile may be this behemoth, a political behemoth that you don’t cross swords with. But I don’t look at things that way. I think that Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo would be a more formidable foe comparatively.”

And yet it is a particularly persistent tentacle. A survivor, says the senator.

“He has survived all these changes in the administration, and if there is a skill in that, if you want to be a political survivor maybe you can study or read his memoir. But if you’re looking for public service in there, I can’t say that he is or he was the ideal public servant.”

To Trillanes, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile is an extension of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, “the poster girl of corruption.” 

That extension, he says, must be “rooted out.”

It is the reason why Sonny Trillanes spoke out in a privilege speech on Sept 19, 2012.

Trillanes called Enrile a bully. He said he had lost confidence in Enrile’s leadership. He claimed it was Enrile’s persistence to ram through a bill splitting Camarines Sur into provinces that made him decide to take his stand against the senate president. The senator alleged that it was Congresswoman Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo who personally called the Senate President to speed up legislation.

In a dramatic close to an unexpected speech, the former soldier announced he was leaving the majority and joining the senate minority.

“I’m not going to be anybody’s lackey, worse of all an extension of GMA’s lackey,” he says. “That’s even worse right? A lackey of GMA’s lackey.”

The result of Trillanes’ senatorial rebellion was unexpected. The story that evening was not the Camarines Sur bill, it was the pitched battle on the Senate floor between an angry Senate President and an insulted former rebel.

The issue was treason.

The hero of Scarborough

Earlier that morning—hours before Trillanes’ privilege speech and Enrile’s reaction—the Philippine Daily Inquirer broke the story of Trillanes as the Philippines’ backchannel negotiator for China.

It was a story that had long been circulating among the media ever since Trillanes was seen in Cabinet meetings on the China territorial dispute. 

The Inquirer quoted Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario, who said that while he thought backchannels had a purpose, “In our case it’s doing more harm than good. It is important that we speak with one voice on this matter.” 

Trillanes was quoted as having felt “alluded to” by del Rosario’s statement. 

In the article, Trillanes said del Rosario had “failed miserably” in his role. He said it was Del Rosario who “nearly brought us to an armed conflict.” He blamed Del Rosario for his inability to get a joint statement from the ASEAN. He accused Del Rosario of failing to secure a one-on-one meeting between Aquino and Chinese President Hu Jintao during Aquino’s visit to Russia. Trillanes said “backchanneling efforts were close to working out an informal meeting” until Del Rosario took over “to ensure his presence during the meeting.”

Much of the criticism against Trillanes over the Scarborough issue is his apparent propensity to sing his own praises regarding his performance as a backdoor negotiator with China.

He told the Inquirer, “I’d rather that Secretary Del Rosario be just happy with the fact that somebody else did the job he was supposed to do, which is to foster better relations with other nations as a means to promote our country’s interests.”

There is no doubt that Del Rosario committed a tactical error admitting to the media—however vaguely or diplomatically—Trillanes’ involvement as a backchannel negotiator. Trillanes did the same, although it is the manner he spoke that made him a target instead of the Foreign Secretary. They were not the words of a statesman, but of a boy defending his swing in the school playground, or of a man who had forgotten that as a covert negotiator, his reputation and personal interests are secondary to the Philippine image.

The senator does not see this, and is perhaps unaware that there are repercussions to calling the President’s alter ego and the country’s official face in the negotiations a traitor, in full view of a watching Chinese government.

Trillanes claims he had no choice. He was offended, he believed his reputation tainted, and as saving his reputation demanded assassinating Del Rosario’s, then so be it.

Asked why he did not withhold comments, he says he did not consider discretion a possibility.  

“I felt slighted, and it was unfair, and there is this guy telling me that Del Rosario already said I was the backchannel, and that I had been doing more harm than good. What would I do? Would I just swallow what Del Rosario will tell the public? The information was so damaging to my reputation that I had to say something right away.”

The diplomatic Mr Trillanes

Trillanes says it was his challenge to Enrile’s integrity that that led to the Senate President’s subsequent readingof the Brady notes, a 30-point summary of a meeting Trillanes called with Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady. The notes, read in full by Enrile in spite of Trillanes protestations, noted among other things that Trillanes said “nobody” in the Philippines “cares” about Scarborough.

Trillanes does not dispute the Brady notes, and even explains that they were probably taken by Consul Evangeline Jimenez of the Philippine Embassy in China. He says it was necessary to brief Brady, to “download” all he knew to her as she had been newly appointed. He added that the notes were not as accurate as reporters might take. 

At the standoff on the Senate floor, Enrile accused Trillanes of speaking falsehoods, and called him a fraud and a laughingstock.

“He is supposed to be a trained military man but he does not know anything about military strategy,” Enrile said Trillanes was creating intrigues in the administration, pitting the President against his Vice President and making judgments he had no business making. Enrile, who kept his calm even at the height of the dramatic Corona impeachment trials, went on a blistering tirade that lasted nearly half an hour. If Enrile were to be believed, Antonio Trillanes IV was no more than a self-important, ungrateful megalomaniac who had insinuated himself into a position of power at the expense of the national interest.

Trillanes walked out. 

“He can’t take the heat,” said Enrile. “He’s a coward.”

Trillanes claims Enrile committed treason.

“[Enrile] was warned several times. I called his attention to that—that he is going to commit a crime, because it is a crime regardless if you are senate president or an ordinary citizen. If you expose state secrets you will have to be punished.”

It is odd coming from Trillanes, the man whose detailed accusations against the Foreign Affairs Secretary was at that time already printed in tens of thousands of newspapers.

Trillanes claims he never explicitly admitted his role as a backchannel negotiator until he was asked to respond to del Rosario’s statements to the Inquirer. His comments, he says, were in defense of the Filipino interest. He says he kept his silence for the duration of the time he worked as a negotiator.

It was Del Rosario, he said, who said it first. 

Yet according the Inquirer, as early as July, Trillanes was already announcing his opinion on Scarborough, calling del Rosario “a war freak” over radio station dzIQ.

Del Rosario and Trillanes were both asked to refrain from making statements to the media. Del Rosario kept his peace. Press Secretary Edwin Lacierda told media that “it would be up to Trillanes to explain why he decided to speak out on certain matters about his backdoor negotiations with China” and called the squabble between Trillanes and Del Rosario an “unnecessary nuisance” to negotiations with China.

“We would certainly hope that the senator would refrain from making statements,” Lacierda said.

It is apparently a wasted hope on the part of Lacierda. Trillanes says he has performed his mission. He believes he has averted war. He has no compunctions making statements to the media.

“I am part of the legislature. Secretary Lacierda knows very well that he can’t compel me or he cannot gag me but the thing here is this. I was accused as a traitor. I cannot just keep quiet about it. I was called names during that privilege speech. I need to defend my dignity at the very least.”

That Enrile leads the same legislature that cannot be “gagged” or “compelled”—according to Trillanes—also seems irrelevant to the senator.

Trillanes is calm when he talks about the incident. He says that he and the Senate President are civil. They are adults, they are senators, they will not wrestle it out in court, although “we don’t have to be best friends.” He feels that when one side of the debate reverts to namecalling, it means “you have won the match.” 

He says he has never called Enrile names, “not on that level.” He admits to calling Enrile a bully and a master manipulator, but he still claims to be the better man. After all, “some people would take it as a compliment.” 

The Oakwood conference

When he stood on the Senate floor to challenge Juan Ponce Enrile, Trillanes was following the same narrative arc that brought him and a troop of 300 junior officers from the Armed Forces of the Philippines to the front steps of Oakwood Hotel in 2003.

The military breakaway was a result of information that came into Trillanes’ hands that President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo had allegedly given orders to the armed forces to manufacture a terrorist situation in Mindanao to take advantage of American grants. Trillanes “believed it was unacceptable.”

Oakwood was called a mutiny against Arroyo, although it was little more than a press conference called by men who happened to be armed. Trillanes didn’t want violence. He had no intention of becoming the enemy. The guns were there because “having arms is actually part of our uniform,” and because, he adds, they were concerned they would be arrested before they delivered their message.

Trillanes is vague as to what he intended after the message was delivered.

“To be honest, I really don’t know,” he says, asked about his ideal ending. He had hoped “letting the public know” would be enough. What he wanted, when he thought about it at all, was to catalyze a revolution led by the people.

“Probably they would be outraged by the information that we have given and actually do something about it.”

The something, he hoped, would be a movement “probably similar to Edsa,” a spontaneous revolution sparked by the breakaway of Defense Minister Juan Ponce Enrile and Armed Forces Chief Fidel Ramos from the government of Ferdinand Marcos. What the senator appeared to forget then was that unlike the Magdalo soldiers who marched into Oakwood, the military in 1986 demonstrated they were prepared to die before the armies of Marcos.

Trillanes was bewildered by the lack of public outrage, and says now it was perhaps of a result of miscommunication. The people could not yet understand the complexity of their complaint, and he admits to naivete in assuming the information would lead to action.

An interview with the senator at the end of the Oakwood affair shows an embittered Trillanes inside a military truck answering questions from reporters.

“Sir, what will happen when you’re court-martialed?”

“I don’t know, we’ll be imprisoned or what.”

“If you don’t get what you want, what happens?”

“Nothing, there’s nothing I can do. That’s what the Filipino wants. They like being fooled, don’t they? They like to be led by the nose. So that’s it.”

Trillanes paid dearly for his lack of foresight, spending years in detention until President Benigno Aquino III granted him a pardon. By then, Trillanes was a senator of the Republic of the Philippines.

The battleground had changed, but never Trillanes’ strategy—discovery, revelation, a grand rebellion, and very little weighing of either evidence or results.

The difficult path

Antonio Trillanes IV is a fatalist. What will be, will be. He says this many times, and every time with pride. He never planned to be a soldier. He never planned to rebel. He certainly never planned to become a senator of the Republic of the Philippines. 

He learns from every experience, he says. It builds character. He will not regret, he will not plan, he will be elected if he is elected, and if he isn’t he will move on.

It is a difficult situation for a man who also calls himself a reformist, as reform demands not just intent but strategy, philosophy and a weighing of odds.

When the information on Camarines Sur fell into his hands “there wasn’t even a dilemma.”

“I was hyped up. It was like when I decided to go to Oakwood or Manila Pen, there was no conflict, internal conflict. It was as clear as day.”

Trillanes believes himself a straight shooter. He “calls things as it is.” He stands by the code instilled in him in the Philippine Miltary Academy, and recalls his cadet’s prayer, a plea for God to “Guide us that we may discipline our lives to trail the more difficult path, rather than go astray in the easier ways.”

Whether the difficult path is the right path is simply a matter of convincing the senator. And it is easy to convince Trillanes.

In his challenge to Enrile, he admits “his evidence”—a reporter quoting a source, the validation of a colleague—may not stand in court, but the strength of his own evidence is not important to Sonny Trillanes. “That is not how I do things.”

It is an admission that invalidates many of his claims against both Arroyo and Enrile.

“In life, you receive information, you validate information, they may not stand in court, not all of us are lawyers, but it will be necessary for you to make a decision and I made a decision.”

Faced with a moral dilemma Trillanes will will take the hero’s way, “the more difficult path,” draw the lines of right and wrong, and throw himself into whatever bombastic act will suggest itself that will mark him a rebel. It is a dangerous strategy for the Senate, where courage is of less value than compromise. Trillanes has realized this.

“I believe that in order for me to function better as a legislator, I need to be part of a group. You cannot be an independent or a Lone Ranger. You won’t be able to get things done, your bills passed, or your advocacies raised.”

Yet his understanding is superficial, and is only secondary to the more romantic moral conflicts of right against wrong. For him, Enrile’s guilt is absolute, unquestionable, the same as Arroyo’s was in 2003. Justice does not appear to be a priority–or he would have gathered the evidence necessary to stage the downfall of the behemoth. He believes in honor, truth, courage–the lone soldier standing in a field of battle, deserted by his allies, fighting to the death. 

So he challenged Enrile, left the majority coalition, and effectively rendered himself a legislative pariah months after he joined the Nationalista party, two short weeks after he filed his certificate of candidacy. He is not clear on the results, but he wanted to show the bully he would not be pushed around. Enrile has vowed to campaign against Trillanes, “to reveal the man” as he truly is.

The senator is not afraid.

‘Nationalist’ agenda

In July 2012, Trillanes joined the Nacionalista party. 

He does not appear certain what the nationalist agenda is, although he claims “it is very clear.” Asked to define the party agenda, he stumbles, pauses, and talks about an stance that is “relevant to the times.” National interest, national agenda, national ideology and the stand of the Nationalist party are interchangeable words, and it is difficult to understand why this self-proclaimed reformist aligned himself with a party whose cause he cannot determine. 

The senator then talks about his own reform agenda—the creation of a welfare state—while admitting, eventually, that he has yet to propose his agenda to the party.

The lack of a definitive party agenda is not a surprise, during an election where guest candidates are accepted by multiple parties, and political enemies hold hands for the sake of winnability. Yet Trillanes insists there is a stand, that his choice is not random or drawn from a promise of campaign favors. He says he spent his years in detention building the Magdalo agenda, and he intends to convince the Nacionalista party to adopt the same. He talks about updating the agenda for the sake of reform, but also says he cannot introduce his agenda yet, as he is a new party member.

“We will deal with the elections first,” he says, and the agenda after. 

Why he chose to jump into the party now and ask questions later is still unanswered, although he does say he “was attracted to the history and the patriotic line,” as the nationalists were in the past against American colonization.

“I am pretty sure I will have a voice. I am bringing in new insights. I believe we can steer the party a certain direction and I am coming in with the agenda of re-updating recalibrating the party ideology premised on the prevailing times.”

It would have been better to have aligned his agenda first, especially within a party headed by Manny Villar, whose controversial capitalist ventures have very little to do with Trillanes’ dream of creating a welfare state. Because he is what he is, he may very well find himself at another crossroads, facing another moral dilemma once he discovers that “nationalist” may only be a word to the Nacionalista party.

After all, he admits he is still surprised that “people are not what they seem.”

“I get blindsided a lot of times. Because as soldiers what you see is what you get. What they tell you is what they actually mean. But in politics it’s completely the opposite. And later on, as I got to stay here much longer I still get blindsided a lot. I assume this person is saying it this way and this is what he means but it’s the opposite 

“You get stabbed in the back a lot. And sometimes in the front.”

All this makes Trillanes a brave man, an honest man, a well-meaning man, the sort whose moral compass, unlike so many in power, is fixed to a true north. Yet Trillanes must be judged not as a man, but as a political figure, a legislator, one at the mercy of whoever understands that this soldier is not so much a man with a gun than he is a bullet, easily aimed toward whatever he can be convinced stands in the way of the path of righteousness.

He might win, or he might not. He is a fatalist, after all, and when the time comes, he will stand and fight—whether the enemy is a tentacle or a behemoth or a figment of the imagination of Antonio Trillanes IV. –

Read Sonny Trillanes’ comprehensive profile on Rappler. 

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