MANILA, Philippines—The victory of Antonio Trillanes IV in the senatorial elections still gives veteran pollsters pause.
Early on, an embarrassed military leadership had to seriously consider whether his victory was a “vindication” of the 312 junior officers and men who railed against corruption in the military and in the government in an 18-hour standoff that came to be known as the Oakwood mutiny of July 2003.
The fact is that this former Navy lieutenant and acknowledged leader of the “Magdalo” rebel soldiers became, at 35, a senator of the realm against all odds, winning even while behind bars and despite a “troublemaker” reputation and a meager war chest.
Controversy continues to hound him, from the delay in his proclamation because of a snag in the issuance of a permit to leave his detention cell, to his pending omnibus petition at the Makati Regional Trial Court to be allowed to attend Senate sessions and grant interviews, among other things.
Does this man know what he has gotten himself into?
In a 2-hour phone interview with the Inquirer, Trillanes is both enthusiastic and reticent. He is variously eager to answer the questions that had not been submitted beforehand and quick to ask that certain remarks be stricken off the record.
He is uncomfortable wearing his beliefs on his sleeve, but is clear on one thing: He will be a builder, not a destroyer.
Trillanes says those who gush over his come-from-behind victory are mistaken in giving him the credit for it. But he says no single person could take the credit either, because the campaign that he has described as a “mission” was all about teamwork and volunteerism.
Still, he was “really, really humbled by the show of support.”
If he can pin down one factor for his victory, what will it be?
A slight pause, and then: “I just came in at the right time.
“People were longing for change. I came in as somebody who, in the minds of the people, was untainted by politics. That’s what they saw.
“Of course they wouldn’t have known I was running if it weren’t for the media.”
Detained at the Marine brig in Fort Bonifacio for the last four years and his military career over (he quit the service when he filed his certificate of candidacy), Trillanes thinks that if he did not win, his life would have become “normal.”
“I could have won my life back,” says the father of two (three, actually; the youngest died in infancy). “My life now is for the country. I’m sharing my life with the people. But if I had lost, that chapter of my life would have been over and I would have had closure. Now the chapter of public service is unfinished.”
He almost sounds envious of the other Magdalo officers, most of whom have entered into a plea bargain in their general court-martial.
He views the plea bargain, not as a capitulation, but as a part of the legal process that the other officers swore they would undergo for their actions.
“For them, it’s finished. There’s already a legal conclusion in the plea bargain. They will be free by January,” he says.
Trillanes is aware that he is portrayed as a loose cannon, a rebel still obsessed with taking the government down. But he says this is “far from it.”
“I would like to believe I’m a builder of this nation,” declares the holder of a degree in naval systems engineering (cum laude) from the Philippine Military Academy.
“I want to be judged through my performance as a senator passing meaningful legislation and as a fiscalizer. These are the reasons people voted for me, not to destroy the government, as portrayed by propagandists.”
This is “the bottom line,” according to Trillanes: “I want to serve this country. I want your permission to do that.”
He denies being the “one-dimensional” character that some people see.
He believes that his vow to revive the impeachment effort against President Macapagal-Arroyo is not incongruous to the “mission” he has set for himself.
“If I’m going to be a builder, I have to stop other people from destroying this country further. We can’t build if somebody is still destroying. That’s part of fiscalizing,” he says.
Trillanes believes that the President is “behind” the killings and disappearances of leftist activists.
But he admits that the witnesses to the killings will likely come out when Ms Arroyo’s term ends in 2010. (By then he will still be senator, and will continue to be so until 2013.)
“If I want to serve my country and if I know she’s doing it, how do I reconcile that? I simply can’t let it pass,” he says.
Trillanes feels that his words about impeaching the President have been misconstrued.
“I never said I will initiate [the complaint]. Even a high school graduate knows that it is the House [of Representatives] that initiates it,” he says, adding:
“But no one’s going to stop me from convincing congressmen to support the impeachment.
“If the people will be lukewarm to it, I’ll leave it be. That means they give a mandate to [Ms Arroyo]. But I’ll give it a try. I’ll convince people. We have to provoke change in that direction.”
And if he succeeds, will he not be asked to inhibit himself from sitting as a judge in the impeachment trial?
Trillanes has a ready answer, reminding the Inquirer how then Sen. Teofisto Guingona Jr. started the ouster movement against then President Joseph Estrada with his “I accuse” speech.
Guingona did not inhibit himself and was never asked to do so, Trillanes points out.
After all, he says, an impeachment trial is not a criminal trial where a judge cannot be perceived as biased.
“We have to be partial for the good of the country. Nobody can pretend they are impartial,” he says.
He talks lengthily of the power play in the Senate for top positions and juicy committee chairmanships.
He calls it “a rude awakening” to politics, but requests that his comments be kept off the record.
“I don’t want to be self-righteous. But we have to focus on what we’re here for, on why we were voted,” says Trillanes, who, because he was not allowed to attend the opening session on July 23, was not able to vote on the Senate presidency.
But out of sight does not mean out of mind.
For their first official act, the senators debated a resolution favoring allowing Trillanes to attend Senate sessions and perform his duties as a senator.
The resolution crossed party lines and was passed by a 17-4 vote.
Because the court has not granted Trillanes’ petition for media access, the Inquirer sought his views on the resolution through his lawyer and chief of staff, Reynaldo Robles.
Grateful but …
According to Robles, the senator was grateful for his colleagues’ gesture but was careful to stress that he was not after a free pass out of detention: “I am thankful but I don’t want to resort to arm-twisting the court. I want this legal victory.”
“I want to be a working legislator,” Trillanes tells the Inquirer.
As for the idea of his grilling the military brass and other executives at confirmation hearings and Senate budget hearings, “that’s another wrong impression of me,” he says.
What the man prefers is to sit in the Senate committee on electoral reforms. “I saw first hand what election cheating is about,” he says by way of explanation.
Actually, Trillanes also asks himself if he is ready for his new role: “Am I really cut out for this? Because there are those raring to cut me to pieces.”
He says he knows he will have to work with all the 22 other senators—including those who grilled him at a Senate hearing months after the Oakwood mutiny—if he wants to get his bills passed.
“I am not an isolationist. People tend to underestimate my thinking, my leadership skills,” Trillanes says wryly.
He says his critics may not have realized how, as a leader of the Magdalo officers and men, he held the group together despite extreme pressure from the military leadership in the past four years.
“If I did not have leadership skills, our group would have been in disarray,” he says.
Trillanes is also bracing for criticism in view of his little knowledge of parliamentary procedures.
“If there will be foul-ups once in a while, it’s OK. But on issues, I should be firm,” he says. “If I get a bill passed into law, I’ll be happy.”
With a full legislative staff and advisers whom he personally chose, Trillanes filed on July 2 10 bills seeking, among others, to increase soldiers’ allowances and combat pay, promote cheaper medicines, improve veterans’ benefits, and repeal the E-VAT.
He speaks enthusiastically about a bill he and his staff are completing research on—one that will repeal the automatic debt service provision in the budget.
Does Trillanes regret anything that has happened to him since the mutiny?
There is no hesitation in his reply: “Regretting is a negative response to an unfavorable result. But the positive response is to learn from this unfortunate event and make this lesson a guide to the future. It can help you strengthen your character.”
He goes on lengthily about his and his comrades’ detention, isolation and personal tragedies, his election campaign, and his victory, and pronounces these as mere part of a divine plan.
Much later he expresses discomfort, feeling he has revealed something too personal, and asks that his comments be taken off the record again.
“I don’t want to sound preachy,” he says. “That’s not how I am.”
Trillanes says he takes comfort in the thought that he will not be given a trial that he cannot handle.
“It just gives me confidence that whatever happens, it’s supposed to happen,” he says.
“If I’m destined to be cut to pieces, so be it. But if I’m not destined for that, they can’t do anything about it.
“I have reached this point. Will I still doubt the strength of my conviction?”