Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV dreams of watching the sunset splayed out across a lounger on a postcard-pretty beach, ice-cold drink in hand.
The vision is a cliché, he admitted after finally relaxing toward the end of a lengthy interview.
And it’s not going to happen soon. His run for reelection is more urgent.
And so are his other dreams, including a corruption-free military, this situation spreading to the entire bureaucracy and eventually the extinction of politicians who would shake each other’s right hand then stab each other in the back with their left.
Trillanes realizes that the beach would have to wait. Probably in an extremely long while—and that is putting it kindly.
Besides, isn’t another six-year term in a chamber where the alpha males have virtually declared him persona non grata the epitome of stress?
“It’s not my call. It’s the people’s call,” Trillanes, one of three Nacionalista senators adopted by the Liberal Party as candidates in May’s midterm elections, replied when asked why he would want more of the Senate.
Trillanes could not leave for the beach right now, he said, “because there’s still this obligation to serve. And until that mandate is taken away through a rejection in the next elections, that’s just how it is. That’s the time I get that opportunity to live that life. That’s how I look at it. And that’s how we should look at it.”
And there’s that other concern. Trillanes is just one member of Magdalo, the group of junior military officers thrust into the limelight when they mutinied to call attention to corruption in the military and in the Arroyo administration in 2003.
Magdalo’s more than 300 members are not sitting on the beach. They are among the groups seeking party-list representation in the elections for the House in May, and they have pledged to work for the welfare of the men and women in the military.
“We continue marching forward,” Trillanes said. “If I didn’t make it during my first foray into politics in 2007, it would have been over. We would have been living quiet lives somewhere. But the voters decided that that shouldn’t be the case. Our supporters said, ‘We will make you win and we want you to serve.’ OK. So be it. So here I am now.”
Trillanes credits Magdalo for the election campaign that won for him a seat in the Senate in 2007.
Four years before the election, Trillanes sat in a detention cell in Fort Bonifacio for participating in the mutiny against Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
From an unknown soldier in hiding after the Arroyo administration got wind of his group and its members’ disgruntlement, Trillanes was thrust into the limelight as the spokesperson who brusquely explained to reporters the what and why of Magdalo.
Arroyo was not pleased with his performance so off to jail went Trillanes, then just days shy of turning 32.
His running for the Senate was, like all other moves within Magdalo, a collective decision.
“We wanted to know if the people would still want us to serve them. We wanted to know if we still had the trust and support of the people and the only way to find out was to join that election and being the more prominent figure in the group, I was the one who was chosen as candidate. That’s how it started,” he said.
Trillanes recalled that Magdalo had a “presence” in 70 of the country’s 80 provinces. Many of his rivals had more limited networks despite their freedom, he said.
It helped that Arroyo’s spies focused their snooping on a decoy campaign headquarters somewhere in the city, missing Magdalo’s secret war room that was operating right under their noses—inside Fort Bonifacio.
Trillanes still smarts from comments by “pseudo-analysts” who insisted at the time that his electoral victory in 2007 was an entirely fortuitous event.
“It’s not a vote for Trillanes but just a protest vote against the Arroyo administration,” he said, echoing his critics.
“But there was a campaign plan,” he said. “Of course, the circumstances favored us, but didn’t they realize we [made an effort] to harness [the public] sentiment? There were other opposition candidates. If that was nothing but a protest vote, then it should have been a sweep for the opposition. But some of them also lost. Didn’t those pseudo-analysts get that?”
Trillanes said it also helped that 2007’s Genuine Opposition adopted him “at the last minute.”
Sen. Ralph Recto decided to join the Arroyo-endorsed senatorial ticket, while Sen. Francis Pangilinan decided to run as an independent candidate.
“There were four slots open so I got tapped as the 10th candidate,” Trillanes said.
Still, things would have been different if Magdalo had no campaign strategy, he insisted.
Trillanes used the first-person plural “we” throughout the interview. “We” means the 321 members of Magdalo.
The decision for Trillanes to seek a second term is a collective decision of Magdalo.
“Every decision we make, we make as a group,” Trillanes explained. This is also the reason, he said, why the members never fought or blamed anyone when things did not work as they had planned.
“I think I draw my strength from the people around me, the mandate given to me. I may have taken this job seriously more than the others,” he said.
Trillanes believes his victory in 2007 was a genuine result of democracy.
People could have simply considered him a troublemaker and crossed him off their list. But they didn’t. Hence his reelection is a gauge of whether the people still accept him as their duly elected representative.
“I cannot suddenly turn my back because I believe it’s a betrayal of some sort [if I don’t run] … I’m a first-term senator. The only way I can make myself accountable to the people is going through the elections. If they approve of what I have done, they will vote for me. If not, they won’t. I will have to subject myself to that process,” he said.
“If I suddenly say I won’t run, that’s just turning my back on the public because they gave me their trust in 2007 and they should be the ones to take it back through the election. That’s how I look at it,” he added.
But it is unimaginable for him to go up the stage and amuse the voters like an entertainer.
“I’m not going to force myself to sing and dance. No! I’d rather be straightforward. I’d rather tell the people, ‘This is what I have done, this is what I plan to do, and this is my character,’” he said.
“People don’t vote for you [because] you are funny. They vote for you because they want you to represent them,” he said. “You represent their ideals and aspirations for the country. They believe you can fight for their rights. They believe you can push and promote their interests. Those are the gauges. I think I’m looking at things from that perspective, which is why I take things seriously.”
But Trillanes has also proven he would not hesitate to use nontraditional means to achieve his goals.
He volunteered the oft-quoted phrase “charm offensive” when he recalled trying to win over Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago as a newbie after President Aquino granted him and his colleagues amnesty in December 2010.
Santiago wanted Trillanes expelled from the Senate after the newly elected senator, still under trial then, suddenly walked out of a Makati courtroom and marched into the lobby of the Manila Peninsula.
Trillanes smiled meaningfully after saying that Santiago is now one of his closest colleagues.
Suffice it to say that Santiago and Trillanes are the only senators who can enter the session hall arm in arm without anyone batting an eye.
Tension with Enrile
The soon-to-be 89-year-old Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, however, is an entirely different creature as far as Trillanes, the chamber’s Benjamin at 41, is concerned.
Trillanes said their nationally televised verbal exchanges after his speech denouncing Enrile’s alleged pressure for the speedy approval of a bill that would carve a new province out of Camarines Sur was just a manifestation of increasing tension between them that began during the impeachment trial of former Chief Justice Renato Corona.
Enrile left his rostrum after Trillanes’ speech to interpellate him and whipped out a sheaf of papers, now known as the “Brady notes,” a reference to resigned Philippine Ambassador to China Sonia Brady.
Brady met with Trillanes in Beijing while he was tasked to engage in backdoor negotiations with ranking Chinese officials to end a standoff between the Philippines and China at Panatag Shoal (Scarborough Shoal) in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) last year.
Enrile called Trillanes a “traitor” for talking to the Chinese and accused him of “selling out” the country to those claiming parts of Philippine territory.
Trillanes walked out in the middle of the exchange. He explained his reasons for doing so at a dinner with Inquirer editors and reporters last week.
“National security” was invoked in Trillanes’ off-the-record narration of events
Since their very public spat, Trillanes has been tenaciously consistent in calling for Enrile’s resignation as Senate president, at one time announcing his group would need just the four Liberal senators in the chamber to create a new majority.
To put an end to Trillanes’ threats, Enrile brought a motion to declare the Senate presidency vacant.
Eleven senators voted to reject the motion. Only Trillanes and Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III joined Enrile, as movant, in favoring it. Senators Ferdinand Marcos Jr. and Joker Arroyo abstained.
What master stroke?
Some leered after the vote, interpreting it as a loss of a young, neophyte badass to an elder and more experienced badass.
“When Senator Enrile won that dramatic vote of confidence, it was celebrated as a master stroke,” Trillanes said. “‘Emulate this,’ they said. I went, ‘Is that what we should teach, that we should be impressed by that?’”
He continued: “All of these analysts tend to forget, or we have forgotten, the moral cause, the right thing to do … You must win the vote? No, you’re just teaching everybody to be shrewd, calculating, deceitful.”
After winning the confidence vote, Enrile declared he would bring the same motion when all his other opponents, including Santiago, Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano and Sen. Pia Cayetano, were present.
Trillanes said he had no regrets.
“Even if you don’t succeed, keep the moral high ground and fight for your convictions,” he said. “Even if you lose, it’s [still] something worth fighting for … In that episode, if Enrile won and I lost, what about the country? Did the country win? If the country won, that’s fine, no problem,” he added.
“We know the background of Senator Enrile. He visited me in Camp Crame [when I was in detention]. I was ready to look up to him as a mentor. I was looking at his positive side, the positive projection of him and I was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt that he was that person some people project him to be,” Trillanes said.
“But eventually, especially during the impeachment trial, I saw a different person … I felt I was being treated badly,” he said.
Trillanes again refused to go on record about the details.
He, however, acknowledged Enrile’s role in his early release from detention in December 2010.
At the time, there were already efforts to convince the Aquino administration to release Trillanes.
Aside from applying for the amnesty offered by Malacañang, the International Parliamentary Union (IPU) issued a resolution asking the government to allow Trillanes’ release so he could serve in the Senate.
“So [the administration] used [the IPU resolution] as a basis for my early release. I was supposed to be released on Jan. 6, 2011, but I was released on Dec. 20, 2010, because of … the intervention of the Senate President,” Trillanes said. “Definitely I appreciated that, but [he] cannot claim credit for my release. I would have chosen to stay there for two more weeks [if I knew he would eventually sock it to me that he did me a favor, right]?”
“Enrile only became sympathetic when we already had a new President,” Trillanes said.
Trillanes said he had learned to behave better, though still unhesitant to show his true colors to people.
“It’s better that way,” he said. “If you’re angry, say so. If not, then no. I don’t like pretending.”
Well-meaning friends have pointed out his “brusque” habits and helped him control them.
He added that he is no longer the angry younger man that people first laid their eyes on in 2003.
However, the senator used the word “indignant” in describing his state of mind.
Does he mean that the indignation with Arroyo transfer to Enrile?
Did the personification of that indignation morph from that woman to that man? Trillanes said, “Yes.”
“They may be two different personalities but they symbolize the same enemy in society, which is the face of corruption. So, I’m just being consistent. This is not about a personality called Gloria Arroyo. This is about the fight against corruption, the face of which now being Enrile. During the impeachment it was Corona. We cannot be choosy in this fight,” he explained.
After regaining his freedom, Trillanes realized that he just moved to a different battlefield, that of politicians armed with pocketed public funds and defending their personal and political interests.
“In the field, the enemy may fire back but at least you know where he is. Here in the Senate, people smile at you but their knives are pointed at you,” he said.
“In the political world, what you see is definitely not what you’ll get. People smile at you then hit you in the press. Why are they like that?” he said.
But he is resilient, which he attributes to the tenacity he developed during those seven and half years in prison.
“I may fall down once in a while in a political skirmish but I will keep on standing up. I will not get tired of standing up. I’ll just wait for the time [the other guy] gets tired of stabbing me [and fall]. That’s my strength. I don’t want to be that shrewd, calculating politician because when that happens I become one of them,” he said.