Antonio Trillanes

Why Duterte’s crusade against senator is not simply a David vs Goliath story

Following Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s decision to revoke the amnesty and seek the arrest of government critic Senator Antonio Trillanes, Southeast Asia Globe speaks to political analyst Aries Arugay on the politics behind the story

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September 17, 2018
Why Duterte’s crusade against senator is not simply a David vs Goliath story
Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes (R), a former military mutiny leader, reacts during a meeting with his supporters at the Philippine Senate in Manila Photo: Mark R. Cristino / EPA-EFE

At the end of August, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte withdrew the amnesty of vocal government critic Senator Antonio Trillanes, and issued a warrant for his arrest. So far, the Department of Justice has been unable to obtain a warrant, and so Trillanes remains under Senate custody. It seems like yet another example of Duterte cracking down on outspoken opposition. But Aries Arugay, an associate professor of political science at the University of the Philippines, believes this is not a simple case of David versus Goliath.

In 2003, Lieutenant Senior Grade Antonio Trillanes and more than 300 armed soldiers took over the Oakwood Premier Ayala Center in the city of Makati. The group were protesting the alleged corruption of then-President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s administration, but after an 18-hour siege, the mutineers surrendered.

This incident set the trend for Trillanes’ political career, which saw him and his Magdalo group revolt once again in 2007.

But in 2010, under the tenure of Benigno Aquino – Duterte’s predecessor – Trillanes was given amnesty, absolving him of any wrongdoing in the 2003 mutiny.

Duterte’s recent attack on Trillanes – which comes shortly after Arroyo was elected speaker of the House of Representatives – centres on the fact that he feels Trillanes’ amnesty fell short of the minimum requirements since Trillanes did not appropriately admit guilt for the 2003 incident.

With both sides refusing to back down and the legality of Trillanes’ actions hinging more or less on interpretation, it could be a long drawn-out saga – which could be in Trillanes’ interests.

President Rodrigo Duterte was on a tour of Israel and Jordan when his attempts to revoke Trillanes’ amnesty first made headlines Photo: Andre Pain / EPA-EFE

Arugay believes that while it’s true Duterte’s government is ardently opposed to critics, Trillanes himself is not necessarily just a victim standing up to the bully, but is playing a much more nuanced game.

“You can’t just say that Trillanes is representing the good side – he’s the hero and Duterte is the villain. It’s not as consistent. This is just elite conflict,” Arugay told Southeast Asia Globe.

“From the point of view of Trillanes, this is an opportunity for him to remain politically relevant beyond 2019. If he plays this well, then he might have political relevance still by being someone who is persecuted in a symbol of further democratic erosion.”

Why has Duterte come out against Trillanes now?

It’s not really hidden that Trillanes and Duterte have a very hostile relationship. It started during the campaign of the 2016 elections when at the last minute Trillanes accused Duterte of having bank accounts that he had not declared.

If you notice, there is [a common theme] with Trillanes: He tends to be more of the attack dog against a cabal of politicians that now includes Duterte. If you rely on mainstream media, [the timing] has something to do with the investigation Trillanes is embarking on against the solicitor general [Jose Calida]. But I think that is just the culmination point, because Trillanes has been relentless in his criticism of Duterte, and from afar, this seems like – to those who don’t really know the context of Trillanes – a crackdown on the opposition.

In Philippine politics, everyone’s hands are tainted. No one monopolises undermining the rule of law in Philippine politics

Trillanes’ term as senator will end next year, so therefore, he won’t have any other official position unless he runs for a seat in the House of Representatives or a local government position. And that may have an impact on the way that he is carrying this crusade. So I think that the timing is obviously trying to silence him and trying to persecute him for his anti-administration antics, but… this is an opportunity for him to remain politically relevant beyond 2019. If he plays this well, then he might have political relevance still by being someone who is persecuted in a symbol of further democratic erosion.

Is Trillanes being anti-administration just for political positioning then?

If you really know the background of Trillanes and his political dealings, he’s not as consistent and not like the person who is being pictured right now in the media.

The amnesty [that was granted to Trillanes in 2010) was really a step back on the rule of law. It’s funny that the rule of law is being invoked now [by Trillanes supporters]. In Philippine politics, everyone’s hands are tainted. No one monopolises undermining the rule of law in Philippine politics.

This is why good and evil in Philippines politics does not work. You can’t just say that Trillanes is representing the good side, he’s the hero and Duterte is the villain – it’s not as consistent

There was an investigative body after the mutiny in 2003 that recommended a full enforcement of the law. And the proclamation that Aquino signed [that offered amnesty to Trillanes] undermined that completely. So for me, it’s funny that the rule of law is being invoked now. I’m not saying that Duterte’s government is not guilty of undermining rule of law, but I’m saying that this has been a pattern. In Philippines politics, sometimes you’re at the top, sometimes you’re at the bottom. It’s just a matter of what is the political weather, or the political climate.

Is the attack on Trillanes related to Arroyo’s return?
It’s circumstantial that Arroyo’s comeback to power is associated with the downfall of her severest political adversaries. But I think it goes beyond that.

There seems to be mutual interests on the parts of those in the administration alliance to double down on the opposition. I also feel that it is an indication that this administration does not tolerate any form of dissent. It’s very clear. A healthy opposition is important in a democracy, and this is further indication that this government is undermining democracy in this country. That’s very clear.

However, I’m not saying that the democratic credentials of the opposition are sterling either. This is why good and evil in Philippines politics does not work. You can’t just say that Trillanes is representing the good side, he’s the hero and Duterte is the villain – it’s not as consistent. This is just elite conflict. While this has been going on, inflation is at its highest, people are still suffering from poor infrastructure, people are still not recovering, there’s great inequality… So what I’m saying is that this is all a stage that is being put up by Philippine elite politicians. The Filipino public are being led to this spectacle while basic material needs and basic welfare are still not being addressed.

Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes holds a copy of his amnesty granted by former President Benigno Aquino, while speaking to the media at the Philippine Senate in Manila, Philippines 11 September Photo: Rolex Dela Pena / EPA-EFE
Does Trillanes have presidential ambitions?

If you’re an observer of Philippine politics, [you’ll know that] once you become a senator, presidential ambitions are quite automatic.

Duterte is undermining democracy and we rely on the opposition to somehow battle this. But the opposition is contingent democrats – their democratic credentials are not as sterling. But some of those who don’t like Duterte are desperate, so they cling to whoever stands up to the president – even if they know that these politicians have their own interests and they prioritise them over others.

There is not a genuine opposition that could make the categorical statement that “my politics are clean and everything I did was in the name of defending and promoting democracy”. And therefore the criticism that Duterte represents everything that is evil about Philippines politics and everything that is anti-democratic is false.

He represents a substantial part, but not all of it. No one monopolises anti-democratic behaviour and actions in Philippines politics.

How does the public feel about Trillanes?

It depends what side you are on because we are under polarised settings. Definitely this is something that is supported by Duterte fans and diehard, core supporters. But this is also something that is being milked extensively by those who think that Duterte cannot do anything right. What you see is a further disappearance of the middle.

They could just let Trillanes do his thing, and if he has no evidence, then the issue will die out. But what is noticeable is that this government hates criticism in any form… So those who are moderate in the sense that they support some initiatives of this government but are highly critical of others are heavily attacked. So the disappearance of the moderates in the middle is something you see in polarised settings. And that’s what we’re seeing right now. On the other hand, though… those who feel like Duterte is the bane of Philippines politics will rally behind Trillanes, without necessarily looking at his past. [They will] simply rally around him because he represents the opportunity to somehow weaken this government.

A supporter of Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes tears a sign during a rally outside the Supreme Court in Manila Photo: Francis R. Malasig / EPA-EFE

So those who have a more nuanced understanding [of Philippine politics] fade into obscurity. We don’t make good sound bites because we don’t represent the polar opposites that seem to be painted all the time. It’s not as interesting. When you say that everyone has dirt on their hands… compare that to the headline: “Trillanes the David against Duterte the Goliath”. This poor senator who has no political backing is being persecuted simply because he had enough guts to write something.

In the Philippines, it’s like we’re being passed around from one unworthy faction of the elite to the other – that’s the tragedy of Asia’s oldest democracy. It’s tragic.

Malaysia saw a huge political upset at this year’s election as the population voted for change. Can something similar happen in the Philippines?

The people voted for change in 2016. When the Filipino public was promised change, the details were not really given about what kind of change, and change for whom and for what? So changing things for the sake of change might be worse than the status quo – at least the status quo is predictable.

So I don’t know. The Malaysian case is quite interesting because it took the guy who built this entire authoritarian system in Malaysia, [Mahathir Mohamad], to himself destroy it. So you can’t go anymore ironic than that. But it’s too early to tell whether change will really come in Malaysia.

Democracy is messy, and this is why regimes in Malaysia and Singapore have stood the test of time. Because at the end of the day, what they don’t want is to be like [the Philippines]. We’re really serving a grim lesson to all those who want to embrace competitive democracy, but whose quality of the elites is not only substandard, but the worst.

We’re the example of what not to follow. The Philippines has had democracy the longest, so the fact is, we should be learning and we should have been improving, but we have not. We haven’t evolved at all ever since this democracy was established, because these elites refuse to somehow play by the rules. And that is critical. Without some sort of consensus among those who wield power – to build institutions and to have a higher law that covers them all instead of a wild, untamed battle with one another – there is no progress.  

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