Why the crusade of Duterte against Trillanes is not simply a David vs. Goliath story

Following the decision of the Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to withdraw the amnesty and request the arrest of the government critic Antonio Trillanes, Southeast Asia Globe speaks with political analyst Aries Arugay about the politics behind the story

Philippine senator Antonio Trillanes (R), a former leader of the military mutiny, reacts during a meeting with his supporters in the Philippine Senate in Manila Photo: Mark R. Cristino / EPA-EFE

At the end of August, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte withdrew the amnesty of the vocal government critic Senator Antonio Trillanes and issued an arrest warrant. So far, the Ministry of Justice has been unable to obtain authorization, so Trillanes remains under Senate custody. It seems to be another example of Duterte that clashes with pronounced opposition. But Aries Arugay, one Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of the Philippines this is not a simple case of David against Goliath.

In 2003, Lieutenant General Major Antonio Trillanes and more than 300 armed soldiers took over the Oakwood Premier Ayala Center in the city of Makati. The group protested against the alleged corruption of the government of President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, but after an 18-hour siege, the mutineers surrendered.

This incident set the trend for Trillanes' political career, in which he and his Magdalo group rebelled in 2007.

But in 2010, Trillanes was granted amnesty under the tenure of Benigno Aquino – the predecessor of Duterte – and he was acquitted of all offenses in the mutiny of 2003.

Duterte's recent attack on Trillanes – shortly after Arroyo's elected Speaker of the House of Representatives – is about the fact that Trillanes' amnesty does not meet the minimum requirements, because Trillanes has not correctly admitted guilt for the incident of 2003.

With both parties who refuse to fall back and the legality of Trillanes' actions that depend more or less on interpretation, it could be a long drawn-out saga – which could be in the interests of Trillanes.

President Rodrigo Duterte was on tour through Israel and Jordan when his attempts to withdraw the amnesty of Trillanes first made headlines. Photo: Andre Pain / EPA-EFE

Arugay believes that while it is true that the government of Duterte is fiercely opposed to critics, Trillanes is not necessarily just a victim that defies the bully, but plays a much more nuanced game.

"You can not just say that Trillanes represents the right side – he is the hero and Duterte is the bad guy – it is not so consistent – this is only an elitist conflict," Arugay said. Southeast Asia Globe.

"From the point of view of Trillanes this is an opportunity for him to remain politically relevant after 2019. If he plays this well, then he can still be politically relevant by being someone who is being persecuted in a symbol of further democratic erosion."

why has Duterte now released against Trillanes?
It is not really hidden that Trillanes and Duterte have a very hostile relationship. It began during the campaign of the 2016 elections when Trillanes at the last moment accused Duterte of having bank accounts that he had not announced.

If you notice it, there is [a common theme] with Trillanes: he tends to be more of the attack dog against a clique of politicians who now include Duterte. If you rely on regular media, [the timing] has something to do with the research that Trillanes institutes against the solicitor-general [Jose Calida]. But I think this is only the culmination point, because Trillanes has been ruthless in his criticism of Duterte, and from a distance this seems – for those who do not really know the context of Trillanes – a crackdown on the opposition.

In the Philippine politics the hands of everyone are infected. Nobody takes on the monopolies that undermine the rule of law in Philippine politics

If you notice what the timing is, the term of Trillanes will end as a senator next year, so that is why he will not take any other official position unless he runs to a place in the House of Representatives or a position of a local government. And that can have an impact on the way he carries this crusade. So I think the timing clearly tries to silence him and tries to sue him because of his anti-administration antics, but … this is an opportunity for him to remain politically relevant after 2019. If he plays well, then perhaps he may still have political relevance by being someone who is being persecuted in a symbol of further democratic erosion.

Is Trillanes then anti-administration only for political positioning?
If you really know the background of Trillanes and his political association, he is not as consistent and not like the person who is currently being portrayed 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 the Philippine politics the hands of everyone are infected. Nobody takes on the monopolies that undermine the rule of law in Philippine politics.

This is why good and evil does not work in Philippine politics. You can not only say that Trillanes represents the right side, he is the hero and Duterte is the bad guy – it is not so consistent

After the mutiny in 2003, there was a research body that recommended full enforcement of the law. And the proclamation signed by Aquino [that offered amnesty to Trillanes] that completely undermined. So for me it is funny that the rule of law is now being invoked. I am not saying that the government of Duterte is not guilty of undermining the rule of law, but I say that this has been a pattern. In Philippine politics you sometimes stand at the top, sometimes you're at the bottom. It is simply a matter of what is the political weather, or the political climate.

Is the attack on Trillanes related to the return of Arroyo?
It is indirect that Arroyo's return to power is associated with the downfall of its most severe political opponents. But I think it goes beyond that.

There seem to be mutual interests in the elements of the governance alliance to double the opposition. I also believe that this is an indication that this government does not tolerate any form of dissenting opinion. It is very clear. A healthy opposition is important in a democracy, and this is a further indication that this government is undermining democracy in this country. That is very clear.

However, I do not say that the democratic credentials of the opposition are really good. This is why good and evil does not work in Philippine politics. You can not only say that Trillanes represents the right side, he is the hero and Duterte is the bad guy – it is not so consistent. This is only an elitist conflict. While this was going on, inflation is the highest, people are still suffering from a bad infrastructure, people are still not recovering, there is great inequality … So what I mean is that this is all a phase prepared by Filipino elite politicians. The Filipino public is led to this spectacle while basic material needs and basic wellbeing 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 in the Philippine Senate in Manila, Philippines 11 September. Photo: Rolex Dela Pena / EPA-EFE

Does Trillanes have presidential ambitions?
If you are a spectator of Philippine politics, [you’ll know that] if you become a senator, the president's ambitions are fairly automatic.

Duterte undermines democracy and we rely on the opposition to combat this in one way or another. But the opposition is contingent democrats – their democratic credibility is not as unadulterated. But some who do not like Duterte are desperate, so they cling to everyone who stands up against the president – even if they know that these politicians have their own interests and give them priority over others.

There is no real opposition that can make the categorical statement that "my politics is clean" and everything I did was in the name of defending and promoting democracy. And that is why the criticism that Duterte represents everything that is bad about Philippine politics and everything that is anti-democratic is incorrect.

He represents a substantial part, but not everything. Nobody monopolizes antidemocratic behavior and actions in Philippine politics.

How does the public feel about Trillanes?
It depends on which way you are, because we are under a polarized environment. This is certainly something that is supported by Duterte fans and diehard, core supporters. But this is also something that is milked a lot by those who think that Duterte can not do anything right. What you see is a further disappearance of the middle.

They could just let Trillanes go ahead and if he has no evidence, the matter will die out. But what is striking is that this government hates the criticism in any form … So those who are moderate in the sense that they support some initiatives of this government but are very critical of others, are heavily attacked. So the disappearance of the moderates in the middle is something that you see in a polarized environment. And that is what we see now. On the other hand, though … those who feel that Duterte is the curse of Philippine politics will join Trillanes without necessarily looking at his past. [They will] rally simply around him because he offers the chance to somehow weaken this government.

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

So those who have a more nuanced understanding [of Philippine politics] disappear into oblivion. We do not make good sound bites because we do not represent the opposites that seem to have been painted all the time. It is not that interesting. If you say that everyone has dirt in their hand … compare that with the headline: "Trillanes de David against Duterte de Goliath". This poor senator who has no political support is being prosecuted simply because he has enough courage to write something.

In the Philippines it is as if we are being passed from one unworthy party of the elite to another – that is the tragedy of Asia's oldest democracy. It is tragic.

Malaysia saw a huge political outcry over this year's elections because the population voted for change. Can something similar happen in the Philippines?
The people voted for change in 2016. When the Philippine public change was promised, 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 is perhaps even worse than the status quo – at least the status quo is predictable.

So I do not know. The Malaysian case is quite interesting because it took the person who built this entire authoritarian system in Malaysia, [Mahathir Mohamad]to destroy for themselves. So you can not go more ironic than that. But it is too early to say whether there really is a change in Malaysia.

Democracy is messy and that's why regimes in Malaysia and Singapore have stood the test of time. Because at the end of the day, what they do not want is to be [the Philippines]. We really serve a stark lesson to everyone who wants to embrace competitive democracy, but whose quality of the elites is not only below par, but the worst.

We are the example of what we should not follow. The Philippines have had the longest democracy, so the fact is that we have to learn and that we should have gotten better, but we have not done that. We have not evolved since this democracy was established, because these elites refuse to play according to the rules in one way or another. And that is crucial. Without any form of consensus among those who exercise power – to build institutions and have a higher law that covers them all instead of a wild, untamed battle with each other – there is no progress.

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