PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte did not act against his arch-critic Sen. Antonio Trillanes 4th while the chief executive was conveniently out of the country, as the opposition senator claimed. On the contrary, Duterte was reacting to a recently discovered plot to oust him involving Trillanes while he was on his historic state visits to Israel and Jordan, sources close to the military and national security establishment told this writer this week.
The sources told me that Duterte recently discovered a plot supposedly backed by the US Central Intelligence Agency to forcibly take over the government in Manila; among the chief plotters, these sources said, was Trillanes. It was not immediately clear what the role of the senator, who was involved in at least two coup attempts during the Arroyo administration, was in the takeover plot, however.
After the discovery of the plot, according to these sources, Duterte dispatched National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr. to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. Esperon told American intelligence officials to back off from the Philippines because Duterte had already learned of Trillanes’ plot.
Trillanes, of course, had long been bragging of his “American connections” which supposedly include excellent ties with the CIA. Esperon’s visit to Langley was intended to prevent support for Trillanes in case the takeover plot was launched.
Because the plot supposedly involved taking over the government while Duterte was away, there was no time to lose. While Esperon was in the US to talk to the CIA, something had to be done in Manila about Trillanes, who might go ahead with the plot even without the support of the Americans.
Thus, Proclamation 572 was issued voiding the 2011 amnesty given by then President Noynoy Aquino to Trillanes. It was obvious that the Duterte administration had been preparing the order voiding the amnesty given to Trillanes for some time, as even a cursory reading of the proclamation would show.
But Proclamation 572 was apparently so hurriedly released that its title did not even mention the voiding of the amnesty, which was declared as a revocation. There is an important difference between the two terms, as the text of the proclamation makes it clear that Trillanes’ receipt of amnesty was void from the beginning, while a revocation means that it was valid and somehow taken back in the intervening period.
Some lawyers have already pointed this out: While the body of the proclamation was obviously solidly researched and painstakingly written, the “headline” or title on the first page clearly did not discuss the voiding “ab initio” of the amnesty, which formed the legal basis for nullifying it, calling it a revocation instead.
Indeed, even the apparent indecisiveness on what to do with Trillanes now that the order voiding his amnesty has been issued seems to confirm the haste with which Proclamation 572 was issued. In Jordan for the second part of his foreign trip, Duterte also called an unusual Cabinet meeting that could have, in part, discussed the Trillanes situation.
I am sure that Esperon, who joined the President and his party in Israel, where he proceeded after his trip to Langley, had already completely briefed Duterte about what the Americans told him. But still, even with Trillanes neutralized and holed up in the Senate, the administration must still make some hard decisions on how to proceed with the senator, like who should arrest him and where he should be detained.
I think Duterte is still trying to figure out what to do and will finally decide upon his return to Manila tomorrow, Sunday, from his weeklong trip. After all, it doesn’t look like Trillanes is going anywhere and the Senate has already been secured against the possibility of him escaping.
On the other hand, there is a possibility, no matter how remote, that Trillanes could win the propaganda war against Duterte, the longer he stays out of jail. After all, he is still able to conduct daily press conferences from his Senate office, where he continues to play the victim card as the lone senator doing battle against the entire government that is oppressing him for his opposition to the president.
This is already evident in the line repeated most often by Trillanes lawyer and former chief of staff Rey Robles, who says that if Duterte can violate the rights of and oppress a senator of the land, what chance does an ordinary citizen have against the state juggernaut? It’s an old line, of course, and Trillanes remains as unpopular as ever compared to Duterte – but things could still change.
What seems clear is that the longer Trillanes stays out of jail, where his movements and public statements will certainly be a lot more restricted than they are right now, the more opportunities he will have to turn the tide of public opinion in his favor. And with most of mainstream media already taking up and parroting Trillanes’ victimhood narrative, that possibility may not be as farfetched as it would appear upon first glance.
If it is true that Duterte only reacted to the discovery of the plot to oust him involving Trillanes, then some delay in hammering out a response to the problem is understandable. But if government is paralyzed into inaction as a result, then opportunistic political forces would be able to exploit this to spin defeat into victory.
The administration may have dodged a bullet when it discovered the plot to remove Duterte while he was away. But now it should act quickly on the problem of what to do with Trillanes, or it might as well not have found out about the senator’s latest putschist adventure and allowed him to take over.