AS it happened, a few days before his now much maligned interview with Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s current affairs program ‘HARDtalk’, I got to speak with opposition Sen. Antonio Trillanes at his office in the Senate. I was well aware of his reputation for brusqueness. His tangles with some of his colleagues in the Senate are a joy to watch. His speeches are combative, blunt, abrasive, ardent. He is thought of as a rather humorless, frequently glum-faced, serious thinker. Now that I have finally met him in the flesh, most of this is true. But believe me when I tell you that I also found him cordial, graciously polite, mentally agile, and persuasive.
So why all the negative reaction to the HARDTalk interview?
A “disaster” is how some have described Trillanes’ one-on-one with Sackur. Some just turned on the bile. There were gleeful, puerile, thick-headed, vicious insults, malevolent take-downs, and a proliferation of fake news. The claim that Trillanes intended to sue the BBC was one such outlandish falsehood. Yes, Trillanes could have been more forceful. Yes, he might have stated the case for the opposition with greater clarity and incisiveness. And yes, he did flounder on the “Are you a democrat?” question. But really, these were flubs which might have been avoided had Trillanes been better briefed.
When I spoke with Trillanes, I too wanted to know more about his political ideology. What I got from him was not the apparent confusion he had with Sackur over the term “democrat”, but a rather more rounded response that reflected on his military background, his drive to expose corruption at the highest levels and within the Armed Forces, and the ethos by which his group, the Magdalo, operated. The Magdalo, he stated, is “centrist,” espousing “altruistic” governance that seeks to strengthen democratic institutions by working to root out corruption. Clearly, then, he supports democracy.
Those who made hay of Sackur’s line of questioning have thoroughly misunderstood the tough, “devil’s advocate” approach of the English journalist. When Trillanes was asked whether he might be “out of tune” with prevailing attitudes toward the President, Sackur was not siding with the Duterte administration, as Trillanes’ critics have deluded themselves into thinking. Sackur was, as is his style, being contrary and provocative.
The bigger problem is that in slapping down Trillanes’ performance, his critics have really lost all sense of proportion. They appear to have completely failed to grasp what a real train wreck looks like.
In interview after interview, President Duterte cusses, exaggerates, lies, and threatens to commit murder. Interviewed by Al Jazeera journalists Wayne Hay and Jamela Alindogan-Caudron on reaching the 100-day milestone in the presidency, Duterte asserted how a purported 3 million drug addicts were destroying the country. At the time of the interview, 3,500 people had been killed. “You destroy my country and I will kill you,” he said flatly. Now, the number of deaths has climbed to thousands more, mainly from the ranks of the most impoverished, and he has jailed Sen. Leila de Lima, the one person who has consistently gone up against Duterte’s murderous rampage even back in his days as Davao City mayor.
One year on in the Duterte presidency, impunity is even more entrenched. Crime has shot up, the dictator Marcos was buried as a hero, Philippine maritime sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea has been undermined, the integrity of democratic institutions eroded, plunderers released from prison to take their seats at the top table, government officials accompanied by a menagerie of hangers-on junket around the world like there was taxpayers’ money to burn, conflict and carnage have brought the once proud Maranao city of Marawi to its knees, and Martial Law reigns in Mindanao.
Duterte presides over a bitterly divided nation, discombobulated by fake news and poisoned by outright lies. He has alienated the Philippines from allies who have long aided the country with military support, grants and trade, and professed loyalty to rapacious superpower loan sharks.
Trillanes’ BBC interview could have been much better. But let’s just think about what truly matters.