Trillanes and the Magdalo: All grown up 15 years after Oakwood

Nikko Dizon

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President Duterte's most popular nemesis in 2018 – opposition Senator Antonio Trillanes IV – comes from a political party that has learned its lessons in and outside the barracks

MANILA, Philippines – President Rodrigo Duterte’s biggest political thorn in 2018 comes from a band of soldiers that once attempted to bring down a government by seizing a posh hotel.

Fifteen years after they mounted the botched Oakwood mutiny in July 2003, members of the Magdalo have metamorphosed from young and angry rebel military officers to mature and refined leaders who, for the most part, have played smart politics.

Not all of their allies agree with the combative style of Senator Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV, the de facto Magdalo team captain, but they concede that Trillanes is effective and he carries the torch in these dark days.

The senator not only survived a one-of-a-kind presidential order voiding his amnesty, he also won his case against that order in court. 

Compared to the Reform the Armed Forces Movement (RAM), the rebel military officers of the 1980s, the Magdalo successfully transformed into a viable political organization with a nationwide grassroots base called Samahang Magdalo, comprised mostly of civilian volunteers. 

“We had a naive view of the world when Oakwood happened. When we won in the 2007 elections, we believe it was God’s hand that pushed us in that direction,” Trillanes said in an interview.

Trillanes, 47, said his election to the Senate 11 years ago “forced us to level up individually and as a group.” (READ: What a coup!)

Learning new skills

While in jail under the Arroyo years, they all made a conscious effort to keep on learning – enrolling in masters’ degree programs, learning foreign languages, and becoming entrepreneurs.

The Magdalo leaders still looked after their men who had been released before them, making sure that they had livelihood after they were dismissed from the military.

One time at a swanky hotel in Ortigas, one of them came up to Trillanes. Looking dapper in his suit, he was at that time a ranking security official at the hotel. He thanked the senator and the rest of the leaders for looking for jobs for them.

After their release in 2010, most of the Magdalo continued to study – at the Asian Institute of Management, in Harvard, in China. They also began traveling abroad to learn, either individually or as a group.

“By going back to school, we learned tools for analysis. By traveling, we widened our world view. We use [all these] when we deliberate and discuss issues and political developments,” said Trillanes.  

Spreading the gospel about the importance of having a good education, the group started the Magdalo scholarship program in 2011 with the help of benefactors. To date, there are now 210 Magdalo scholars who are degree holders.

Second Senate seat?

The learning and brotherhood were evident one afternoon at the Magdalo’s longtime headquarters in Quezon City. Trillanes presented the results of their privately commissioned survey to some Magdalo executive committee members.

Like the rest of the opposition senatorial candidates, the numbers weren’t looking good for Magdalo Representative Gary Alejano, Trillanes’ mistah (classmate) in the Philippine Military Academy (PMA). 

Alejano is hoping to fill up the Senate seat to be vacated by Trillanes as he wraps up his two 6-year terms and therefore, ineligible to run again. (WATCH: Gary Alejano on taking the fight to the Senate)

Trillanes emphasized that there’s still enough time to get Alejano in the Magic 12 but it meant each one buckling down to work right away.

They also discussed their resources and the need to raise funds – lots of it. A fundraising dinner was out of the question because none of them would be able to sell a P10,000-dinner plate. They agreed that they could stage a concert and hold movie block screenings.

Told that many think the Magdalo group has money, Trillanes smiled and smoothened his suit. “May dating kasi ang porma namin (We exude that air because we dress well),” he said.

Humor is another trait the Magdalos share. It might be unimaginable to see these battle-scarred rebels laughing, but levity has carried them through all the challenges they faced together.

“When we’re together, we keep it light. We have serious moments but often we take things in stride. We’ve shown stability under pressure,” Trillanes said.

At the meeting were execom members Alejano, Eugene Gonzales, Cash Cabochan, Don Santiago, Elmer Cruz, Boyet Orongan, and Jayveeh Macarubbo.

Gonzales, Cabochan, and Santiago– all former Navy officers – are mistahs of Alejano and Trillanes. Cruz, Orongan, and Macarubbo are their underclassmen in the PMA.

“Our life in the PMA was structured and we picked up from that. We’re used to having a structure,” Gonzales said.

Their military training remains evident in how they run their offices, from their headquarters to the Senate to the House of Representatives to the Samahang Magdalo chapters. Everyone has an assigned task and responsibility. It’s an operation that is results-driven, much like in the battlefield.

Working for the Magdalos feels somewhat like a boot camp but most of their staff members have been with them for over a decade. Despite their heavy workload, especially when Trillanes or Alejano unleashes an exposé against Duterte and his administration, they soldier on with the rest of the Magdalos because to them, this is their contribution for the country’s good.

Seniority rules 

The Magdalos still follow seniority in the group but they adopt a more democratic and collegial system compared to the military. “During deliberations, every member of the executive committee has the same voice regardless of their PMA class,” Trillanes said.

They also nominate and vote for those they want to field in the elections.

“We treat each other as brothers. We are compassionate towards one another. We also remind each other kung meron man naliligaw ng landas (if anyone has gone astray),” Cabochan said.

There are times when they get annoyed with each other. Gonzales said the group has had “minor disagreements” through the years but they managed to iron these out, adding they respect the decision of members who had decided to sever their ties from group.

The Magdalo blood is thicker than water for most of them.

When Trillanes was forced to stay at the Senate after Duterte revoked his amnesty, Magdalo execom members took turns staying with him in his office. They had protocols and contingency plans in case Trillanes was arrested. Their wives – the ever-present pillars of strength – also came in full force for Trillanes, wife Arlene, and their children.

It was a collective decision for Magdalo to expose Duterte’s alleged ill-gotten wealth during the 2016 campaign, despite knowing the then Davao mayor could make life hell for all of them. 

“We knew our worlds would turn upside down if we decide to confront a known vindictive politician such as Duterte. The exposé was a product of a series of consultations in the group. Do we sit on it or do we do the right thing and hope that the people will see through the lies and propaganda of Duterte?” Trillanes said.

Breaking ranks

The Magdalos themselves took a hit after Trillanes bared Duterte’s alleged bank accounts. Nearly half of the 650,000 members of the Samahang Magdalo left the group because they supported Duterte.

Trillanes lost his vice presidential bid in 2016, and the Magdalo partylist was only able to get one seat in the House of Representatives.

Despite this, though, the group, through Trillanes and Alejano, continued calling out Duterte.

Santiago, the Samahang Magdalo head, said a lot of those who left are now coming back. “They realized they’ve been had by Duterte,” he said. The turning point for most of them was when Duterte admitted lying about the alleged Singapore bank accounts of Trillanes.

Samahang Magdalo, now on its 10th year, is about being responsible citizens and helping one’s community.

Among their activities are bloodletting, tree planting, medical missions, cleanup drives, and joining relief operations.

Samahang Magdalo members also come in full force in political gatherings, such as anti-administration rallies.

“We told ourselves that we wouldn’t be joining rallies but as we became more involved in politics, we realized that there is a need to take to the streets. So little by little, the group became involved in such efforts,” Santiago said. Not only does the Magdalo provide the warm bodies, the group is also in charge of security at these events.

It was certainly a far cry from the time when the Magdalos were dismissed as “failed military adventurists,” when very few people wanted to be associated with them.

And they intend to be those warm bodies, and more.

Campaigning for 2019

Last October, more than a hundred Samahang Magdalo members, wearing white shirts and carrying red balloons, streamers, and banners were at the launch of the opposition coalition’s senatorial candidates to show support for Alejano.

They cheered for the former Marine officer in unison like a pep squad. The Magdalos have come a long way, too, in election campaigns.

Asked if the 2019 midterm elections would be their biggest challenge yet, both Gonzales and Cabochan said no. It was still the 2007 senatorial bid of Trillanes because they were all under detention, including the candidate himself.

This time, the Magdalo can campaign in full force. “Although the problem now is the administration dominates the state mechanisms, we can now actually go around,” Gonzales said. 

While Trillanes exposes Duterte’s alleged corrupt activities, Alejano has taken up the South China Sea dispute and China’s creeping invasion – issues that trigger Filipinos– as his advocacies.

Together, Trillanes and Alejano constantly remind the people that the killings of drug suspects continue and they hope the International Criminal Court (ICC) would hold Duterte liable for state-sponsored killings.

The Magdalo partylist nominees for the 2019 midterm elections are Cabochan, Gonzales, Cruz, Ian Badecao, and Macarubbo. They are unknown in the political circle, much more to the public.

Many were surprised that Trillanes was not a party-list nominee, considering that switching congressional seats is a norm among politicians from one family.

But Cabochan, one of the unlikely politicians in the group, said all of them recognize that they have to step up when the time comes. Gonzales added, “This helps in the continuity and succession in the group.”

Besides, Santiago said, “he’s already Trillanes.”

“He can continue working as our execom chairman and be influential even without being an elected official,” Santiago said.

Trillanes is being floated as a possible presidential contender in 2022, but the senator himself said the Magdalos “can’t afford to look that far ahead.”

“Our focus is the 2019 midterm elections, to make Gary and the Magdalo partylist win,” Trillanes said.

They’ve learned that military adventurism does not work, and they would rather be known as “reformists” than “revolutionaries.” – 

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.