BATANGAS, Philippines – A group of 5 men, including former officials of the Marcos and Arroyo administrations, sat in a panel while 4 religious leaders stood behind them.
On Thursday, February 26, they presented themselves to reporters as the National Transformation Council (NTC), which wants President Benigno Aquino III and other government leaders to quit.
The NTC stressed it has no leader but works as a “collegial” body. It also said it has no single financier, but funds its activities by pooling its members' resources.
The NTC denied the government's claim that the group is plotting a coup against Aquino. It said it wants a new government, and is still picking a leader to replace the President.
They faced the media days after the Department of Justice (DOJ) on Sunday, February 22, said the government will use “the full force of the law” against them. The DOJ said the NTC is planning an “unconstitutional and illegal power grab” as Aquino faces his worst political crisis.
The NTC held its media briefing after a 5-hour program attended by around a thousand people outside the Lipa Archbishop's Residence in Batangas, two hours away from the Philippine capital, Manila.
During the briefing covered by around two dozen journalists, the man seated at the center was Norberto Gonzales, who served as a defense secretary and national security adviser under former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
The first to be introduced, he answered most of the questions from journalists.
Bishops give 'moral basis'
To his left was Francisco Tatad, a press secretary under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
Throughout most of the 50-minute long media briefing, 4 religious leaders remained standing behind Gonzales, Corona, Tatad, Belgica, and Chong.
Gonzales said the religious leaders provided “moral basis” for their movement. (READ: Bishops split on 'moral basis' for Aquino to quit)
The first in the line of religious leaders is Lipa Archbishop Ramon Arguelles, who runs the place where the NTC held its meeting on Thursday. (READ: Anti-Aquino bishop: Ready for prison if guilty)
Over his cassock, Arguelles wore a red vest.
Said to symbolize life, red is the color associated with critics of the Reproductive Health (RH) law, a birth control measure that Aquino approved despite criticisms from the Catholic Church. No to RH law “till my dying breath,” said a slogan at the back of Arguelles' vest.
The other Catholic prelate in the meeting was Davao Archbishop Emeritus Fernando Capalla, once an Arroyo adviser.
Bishop Butch Belgica, the father of Greco Belgica, and Fr Jocson Ogaya, a representative of Bayombong Bishop Ramon Villena, also joined the event.
Rappler asked Gonzales the position or designation of each of the council members.
Gonzales said in a mix of English and Filipino: “We have no positions in the council. We work as a collegial body. So we don't have a boss.”
He said even the initial idea to form the NTC “is a product of discussions.”
“Even that is collegial, you know, really. We just happened to match each other's sentiments and opinions. We spoke to each other. And then of course what has been agreed upon in the beginning is this: That the problem of our society has gone beyond politics, that we have to begin by invoking the moral basis of our action,” he explained.
Gonzales urged other religious leaders “to give us the ruling on this, whether we are morally correct or not.”
“Now I feel very holy because I have our faith communities guarding our back. How safe can you get?” he said.
Arguelles also said the NTC, which includes around 25 members, works under a “collective leadership.”
He explained that the group doesn't want to create an “idol.”
“If it's an idol, that's precisely the system we want to replace. Who's been winning elections? The rich, the boastful, the famous. They're not supposed to be the president. It should be that even the unknowns could win. Collective leadership is better. It's collective,” Arguelles said in Filipino.
Belgica confirmed that the NTC doesn't have a single leader.
“The council is the one who will lead, morally guided by the Church and technically and civilly guided by experienced and known civil leaders,” the pastor said, stressing that the NTC doesn't want “idolatry.”
'David' to replace Aquino
In a visual commentary on Aquino's political crisis, Belgica donned a beret “in solidarity” with the 44 slain members of the Philippine National Police-Special Action Force (PNP-SAF).
The police operation in Mamasapano, Maguindanao, that killed 44 SAF members, 18 Muslim rebels, and at least 3 civilians thrust Aquino into his biggest controversy since he became president in 2010.
While it has called for Aquino's resignation since as early as August 2014, the NTC stepped up its campaign after the Mamasapano crisis.
Asked who should replace Aquino, Arguelles told reporters, “David.”
Reporters asked, “David?”
“David. King David,” he said.
The bishop referred to the biblical figure of David, the king of Israel. In the Bible, God wanted to choose a king from the among the 7 sons of a man named Jesse. Jesse presented 6 of his sons of “lofty stature,” but God rejected them all.
Then Jesse brought David, “the youngest, who is tending the sheep.”
God chose David because “man sees the appearance but the Lord looks into the heart.”
Citing the story of David, Arguelles said the NTC wants a God-fearing leader for the Philippines. “That's what we need, not those who present themselves but end up as thieves as well.”
One of their speakers from the urban poor, for instance, on Thursday said she hoped the poor can run the Palace.
'Prayers' fund group
Aside from who leads it, the next question for the NTC is who funds it.
Asked who funds the NTC's activities, Gonzales told Rappler, “Prayers.”
Pressed to confirm if the NTC has a financier, he said: “Financier? You want me to swear to the Bible? There's none.”
The group gets its money from its members' contributions, Gonzales added.
As for Thursday's event, Arguelles said the use of the covered court outside the Lipa Archbishop's Residence is free, because the archdiocese owns it.
The archdiocese also helped shoulder the food for around 1,000 people who joined the event, Arguelles said.
In August 2014, the NTC issued its first declaration against Aquino also in Lipa.
Rappler reported that the Archdiocese of Lipa was one of the most politically active archdioceses in the 2013 elections.
Under Aquino, the Lipa Archdiocese launched a “Team Patay” (Team Death) campaign against senatorial candidates who support the RH law.
The Lipa Archdiocese was chosen as the venue on Thursday, Arguelles said, because it is “generous.” – Rappler.com
Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.