The man who keeps Duterte up at night

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Senator Antonio 'Sonny' Trillanes in a May 5, 2016 file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes has always pushed forcefully for change.

In 2003, he seized the Oakwood towers in downtown Manila with 300 soldiers in a short-lived mutiny against what he saw as rampant government and military corruption. Four years later, he marched out of a court hearing on mutiny charges and from the lobby of the swish Peninsula Hotel attempted to stage another coup de etat.

A decade later, the now elected politician says he’s a changed, more democratic-minded man in his checking and balancing of President Rodrigo Duterte’s strongman rule. Indeed, Trillanes is now widely seen as the last vocal man standing in opposition to Duterte’s silencing onslaught of critics and dissenters.

Trillanes claims that Duterte has put out at least four “hits” on his life, alleged threats he says have been neutralized and thwarted due to his top-level military ties. Yet his many accusing shots at Duterte, ranging from drug-running to appeasing China to crimes against humanity in his lethal drug war, have all so far missed the mark.

The only way to save Philippine democracy from Duterte’s apparent drive to establish a full-blown, rights-curbing dictatorship, Trillanes says, is through a military intervention he says is allowed and has happened previously under local jurisprudence.

In a wide-ranging interview with Asia Times at the same Peninsula Hotel lobby military tanks once plowed through to halt his mutinous call to arms, Trillanes outlined his latest plans to remove an elected leader through military-backed democratic means.

Excerpts follow:

Asia Times: You are one of the chief backers of the motion to refer Duterte to the International Criminal Court (ICC) for crimes against humanity over his lethal drug war. Why is outside intervention necessary?

Trillanes: After he won [election], he started killing people by the thousands. So as the Senate we tried to exercise our oversight functions and tried our best to expose information of what’s really happening.

But then his supporters moved in and took out [now jailed on drug charges] Senator [Leila] De Lima and replaced her with a Duterte ally who controlled the proceedings and whitewashed the whole investigation.

So that took away the only platform that we had. After that, my companion, Congressman [Gary] Alejano, filed an impeachment complaint to investigate and pursue the killings, but again the allies of Duterte moved in and railroaded the process.

So with the junking of the impeachment there is no other recourse for us as a people, as a government, except to file a petition with the ICC in hope that it will work as designed when all else has failed inside a signatory state.

Asia Times: So what happens next?

Trillanes: One thing unique about the ICC is that during any time of the investigation phase, if the government they are investigating or the officials in government they are investigating are hostile, they can request an issuance of a warrant of arrest.

[Duterte’s] statements threatening to feed their investigators to the crocs, to arrest them, and the withdrawal [of the Philippines] from the ICC are in fact the basis for the issuance of a warrant of arrest. And once that warrant is issued, everything will collapse.

We are obligated as a [signatory] state to enforce the warrant by the ICC because we have concurred with it, we have ratified it. Now you might doubt that the police and armed forces will have the stomach to arrest their own commander-in-chief, but it depends on the political pressure applied on them – domestically, internationally.

And I believe that once that is on full display these generals will do the right thing.

Asia Times: Do you think Duterte is aware of this threat?

Trillanes: I doubt it. Because he thinks like a normal prosecutor, he assumes that because he didn’t direct any specific person to kill anybody, then in his mind he’s on the clear. But he is badly mistaken because we have him on video saying to shoot to kill, [that] he doesn’t care about human rights.

Based on the ICC’s Rome Statute, in the case of crimes against humanity, a government policy from the head of government is not necessary. The burden of proof is on what did he do to stop it. What did you do as head of government to stop these widespread killings?

And, worse for him, he actually had a policy which was articulated also by his chief of police and implemented by the Philippine National Police. So all the elements of the crime are present.

Asia Times: The Senate recently questioned Duterte’s son of alleged links to a captured illegal methamphetamine [shabu] shipment from a Chinese drug trafficking syndicate. Do you actually believe the Duterte family is involved in the illegal drug trade?

Trillanes: Yes, I do. And I was able to show the clear links to the principal actors in the smuggling of 6.4 tons of shabu into the Philippines and all had close links to the son of Duterte. And that is not a random incident.

Editor’s note: Duterte and his son Paolo Duterte have consistently denied any involvement in the illegal drug trade.

Asia Times: If true, is Duterte actually trying to consolidate the drug trade in a preferred syndicate’s favor rather than eradicate it?

Trillanes: He is eliminating the competition. He is trying to monopolize the drug trade in the country. If you would study his profile, when he comes out strongly about one thing, the reason is often to deflect any suspicion about his involvement.

That’s what he does. Now he is the most vocal against illegal drugs so nobody will suspect his involvement, but the [methamphetamine] importation was the clearest link in the Duterte’s involvement in the drug trade.

Asia Times: How to reconcile all that with the fact that Duterte and his drug war are still popular among Filipinos?

Trillanes: Mr. Duterte has mastered the common language and he is using that skill in deceiving the public…One thing that Mr. Duterte keeps on ranting on and keeps on citing are his supposed accomplishments [as mayor] in Davao City.

But the thing is, based on statistics by the Philippine National Police as late as September 2015, Davao City is the most dangerous city in the country, number one in murder, number two in rape. Even up to the time that Duterte assumed office…the illegal drug trade in Davao City was flourishing.

So how can he even claim his tactics worked at all after having been a mayor of Davao City for more than 20 years?

Asia Times: So how exactly does he deceive the public?

Trillanes: Because of a number of factors. First and foremost, the abdication of the local media in its role as society’s watchdog. They have effectively been immobilized through the bullying and intimidation tactics of Mr. Duterte, so they are not presenting the truth to people.

The next factor is the sophistication of his propaganda machine. They have been spewing out one fake news after another to confuse or deceive the public on what’s really happening.

A final factor is the fear factor. Because of survey methods they go to the barangay [village-level] communities and the houses of the respondents are known to the local officials.

So when the war on drugs happened the targets were deliberately the poor people of communities to sow fear in their hearts. Back then, the dead bodies were deliberately left on display on the pavement so that the public would see it. Of course, fear within the community would pervade.

And because of that it affects even the [opinion] surveys of people. Can you imagine the approval ratings of [Germany’s Adolf] Hitler or [Libya’s Muammar] Gaddafi? It would probably run into the 90’s, not because they were exceptional leaders, but because who would dare to give them a negative rating. So all of these factors are coming into play.

Asia Times: You are widely seen as the last man standing in vocal opposition to Duterte’s strongman rule. Are you not afraid?

Trillanes: It helps that I was a former soldier. Having gone through fighting a sitting president [Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo], a dictator as well, probably the experience is not new. But this is not something I get a high from. It’s just a sense of duty.

Asia Times: So with your military background and ties, does Duterte fear you?

Trillanes: I know for a fact that Duterte is a paranoid man. And that he knows also that my classmates at the [military] academy are now battalion commanders in the army. So these are some things that he might consider in his moves against me.

Asia Times: So how concerned is the military about Duterte’s perceived appeasement of China and loss of sovereign territory to it in the South China Sea?

Trillanes: Information is being relayed to us by members of the armed forces and this translates not only to a concern or apprehension on their behalf, but they are proactively leaking out information that is being restricted or covered up by the Duterte administration.

For example, they told us that the Duterte administration has been prohibiting them from conducting EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) patrols in the West Philippine Sea [where China is active]. So they are very much concerned.

Asia Times: Is the sense among your military contacts that China’s deployment of missiles to nearby features in the South China Sea – which some here are likening to a Philippine version of the US’ Cuban Missile Crisis – represents a point of strategic no return?

Trillanes: Well, that basically is a game-changer. It completes the militarization picture and missiles in any context are an offensive weapon. That’s why we should get our act together and let our concerns be known to China and the rest of the world.

I’m proposing three prescriptions: We should ask the United States to continue with their freedom of navigation patrols. We need also to expedite the implementation of our defense agreement with the United States – that would at least provide some balance in the regional security.

And we could initiate a regional summit or international summit on regional security in Southeast Asia so we can inform the whole world what is happening so we can put more pressure on China.

Duterte’s policy is that China will ‘protect’ the Philippines and that the missiles are not pointed at us. So he has actually prostituted himself to China as a payback for something he will ask for in the future.

Asia Times: Knowing what you do about the military’s national security concerns, do you think the China issue has the potential to spark a military coup?

Trillanes: We’re hoping that any military intervention would fall within democratic processes. We have a precedent, actually.

Back in 2001, when the armed forces withdrew their support for former President [Joseph] Estrada and when he stepped down it was constructively interpreted as a resignation. So that was part of the jurisprudence of our courts and therefore is now considered a valid democratic process.

Asia Times: So if the military withdraws its confidence from a sitting President, i.e. an effective vote of no-confidence, that has jurisprudence under Philippine law?

Trillanes: Yes. Because eventually that would signal the end of Mr. Duterte. All the forces of Philippine society would gravitate towards the new leadership and that would force Duterte to step down and therefore it would be construed as a resignation. A resignation is part of constitutional processes.

Asia Times: Is this really possible?

Trillanes: Yes. It already happened back in 2001.

Asia Times: And you think the situation is headed in that direction?

Trillanes: I certainly hope so. That’s why I am limiting what would be within the tolerable level of military intervention, but without a full coup de etat-type of intervention, because it might create a bigger problem than it intends to solve.

Asia Times: So to trigger such a ‘legal’ military intervention, do you think it would be the China issue or a basket of issues?

Trillanes: A basket of issues. It would be a confluence of events. They are going to pile up…Who knows what’s in the minds of the senior officers of the armed forces right now?

Asia Times: Is Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, who has openly disagreed at times with Duterte’s China policies, the man to make the move?

Trillanes: Based on the past experiences, what we call the EDSA 1 and EDSA 2 phenomena [‘People Power’ protests], these types of decisions are made collegially. They may try to feel each other out, but at the end of the day, they will vote on it and a collective decision will be made.

But knowing the facts of those two previous experiences [street actions that toppled Ferdinand Marcos and Joseph Estrada] the armed forces made the right decision. They didn’t side with the bad guys.

Asia Times: How do you view Duterte’s economic management? Do you sense popular discontent is building on bread and butter issues?

Trillanes: Duterte is not managing the economy at all. He has no economic plan. He was very clear from the get-go that he doesn’t know anything about managing the economy.

So he leaves it to his lieutenants, principally Secretary [of Finance Carlos] Dominquez, who’s in charge of all these things. But Secretary Dominquez is a businessman and there is information now that he and his business partners are shaking down specific businesses they are interested in. It’s part of the cracks that will show later on.

But the [new ‘TRAIN’] tax law they imposed on the public is the backbreaker. They totally disregarded its negative effects on the poor segment of the population, it reduces the purchasing power of the people, and therefore it will eventually lead to the contraction of the local economy. The only thing propping up the economy now is the remittances from overseas Filipino workers (OFWs).

Worse, he’s causing liquidity problems for the economy with his populist policies, like the doubling of salaries of soldiers and policemen, which basically ate up the revenues from the tax hike and is worsening inflation. And he’s promising another populist measure which is to drastically increase the salaries of teachers. He’s doing this to pump himself up politically at the expense of the economy.

Asia Times: So with all this you think it’s inevitable that Duterte falls?

Trillanes: You can say that I’m an optimist, but that’s what I feel. And that gets me excited to wake up in the morning. I saw the difference that first day that he assumed office and close to two years after: everything has changed. That cult following that he had during the [2016 election] campaign is now gone.

The public are now getting tired of all these scandals and they have opened their eyes to the fact that Duterte is nothing but a charlatan. How does he miss history, or the news, or even Hollywood movies – how does he miss that the bad guy always loses and he decided to be the bad guy?

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