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'Fortunately,' there won’t be pushback from military over VFA – Trillanes

MANILA, Philippines – It’s true that some members of the military disagree with the repeal of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US, but they are unlikely to defy or change the mind of the President, who is also their commander-in-chief, former senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV told Rappler on Wednesday, February 19.

“Those directly involved in the exercises with the US, talagang frustrated sila, and nakita nila, napaka-petty and whimsical ‘yung ginawa na desisyon (they were really frustrated, and they saw how petty and whimsical the decision made was),” Trillanes said in a Rappler Talk interview.

But whether that frustration is enough for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) to try to dissuade President Rodrigo Duterte from breaking the pact or – as Trillanes did twice in his career – defect from the administration, the former Navy officer said it is unlikely. 

“There won’t be any pushback because part of that professionalism is to accept the orders of your superiors because there is a presumption of regularity,” Trillanes said.

“The termination of the VFA is a foreign policy issue, which is beyond the ordinary soldier. So the soldier might feel frustrated initially, personally, but then he will continue to do his job. So that is the kind of professionalism that we need and that is the kind of professionalism that we have, fortunately,” he added.

Trillanes said one instance in which the AFP proved itself professional was when it did not carry out Duterte’s order of a warrantless arrest against him in late 2018, when the President revived cases stemming from his mutinies in 2003 and 2007.

‘We gained a lot from the VFA’

Noting the fact that the VFA was perennially criticized for having been lopsided in favor of the US, Trillanes said he thinks Filipinos have actually gained more from it than the Americans.

“There is no perfect agreement or treaty. But if you really look at the VFA, if you look at the half-full perspective, we got more benefits from it than they did…and we have been optimizing that,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.

For the US military, being evicted yet again from the Philippines would mean losing a strategically located outpost in the Asia Pacific. It would be an “adjustment and a challenge” for the Americans, but they are bound to find alternatives, Trillanes added.

Meanwhile, the AFP stands to miss out on some 300 yearly joint exercises and trainings it has had with the US military over the last two decades. Besides that, it will also lose valuable assistance in intelligence gathering and surveillance, especially in counterterrorism.

The VFA, which provides legal cover for the presence of US troops in the Philippines, will lapse in August, at the end of the 180-day interim since Duterte officially ordered its repeal on February 11.

Duterte just keeping a vow

Trillanes reads Duterte’s termination of the VFA over Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa’s cancelled US visa as a message to “his people” – those who implemented his illegal orders like dela Rosa, his first national police chief who started and ran his grisly war on drugs.

Dela Rosa’s US visa appeared to have been revoked as part of US government sanctions on human rights violators.

“In addition to the pivot to China, I believe Duterte’s act of using the visa cancellation of Senator Bato is to use it as a symbol that he is protecting his people, na ‘yung mga pinangakuan niya na, ‘sige pumatay kayo, sagutin ko kayo – heto na ‘yon, kinanselan ng visa, hindi pala niya maproteksyunan (that those he vowed to protect and told to go ahead and kill – now that their visa is cancelled, it turns out he couldn’t protect them)?” Trillanes said.

“He’s doing a mind game and his audience are his minions who kill,” he added.

It’s clear that Duterte was out to please China when he first threatened to call off the VFA, Trillanes said, but he thinks the President did not really expect the US to ignore his threat.

Duterte had given the US a month’s ultimatum to restore Dela Rosa’s visa, to no avail. The US did not publicly, categorically ask to maintain the VFA either.

Nagpapaligaw pa ‘nung una eh. Eh it doesn’t work that way eh. So tinuluyan na niya dahil napasubo na siya, (He was baiting them at first. But it doesn’t work that way. So he was forced to go ahead with it)…. I believe that that is a very big mistake and I think he realizes it now,” Trillanes quipped.

Not another ‘Sonny Trillanes’

Trillanes tried to start a coup against then-president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo in 2003 because he believed she was corrupt. He tried it again in 2007, when he was already a senator.

Now, he thinks Duterte is worse than Arroyo. Would he want anyone in the military to pull another “Sonny Trillanes,” that is, attempt a coup against the President? Trillanes, in fact, has just been accused of sedition against Duterte.

“No, definitely not,” he replied.

The former military man now thinks the country is better off with the AFP sticking to the chain of command.

“I believe it’s okay for us Filipinos, in the interest of the Filipino, that they will not intervene. But it goes both ways. So it also means that Duterte cannot use them to install, let’s say, a revolutionary government, or to order the AFP to shut down Rappler or ABS-CBN. It cannot be done,” he said. –

JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.