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Rodrigo Duterte

Duterte’s plan for retrial of senator over failed coups ‘could split Philippine military’

Analyst suggests Philippine Armed Forces are divided over support for Antonio Trillanes, who has hidden in his office since president ordered his arrest and court martial for attempts to overthrow a previous government

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 5:58pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 September, 2018, 11:06pm

President Rodrigo Duterte’s order to arrest Philippine opposition senator Antonio Trillanes and try him in a military court for crimes he has already been pardoned for could split the military, a defence and security analyst warned.

“The military will split” if Duterte pushes the Armed Forces of the Philippines to court martial Trillanes for taking over the upscale Oakwood hotel in 2003 and the Manila Peninsula hotel in 2007, said military historian Jose Antonio Custodio.

Custodio, who once worked in the military’s planning office, said if Duterte forces the issue, “there would be factions which would agree with him and factions which would not agree with him”, as well as a “faction that is not necessarily pro-Trillanes but pro-institution”.

He noted there is “some hostility toward Trillanes” among his seniors because they feel he disrespected his former superior, Armed Forces chief Angelo Reyes, during a Senate hearing. However, Trillanes still has support from his Philippine Military Academy batch and younger soldiers.

“The government should actually back off, but it seems to want to proceed. If it proceeds,” Custodio said, “[It] will have to deal with military instability.”

He described Duterte’s hold on the military as “tenuous”, despite cash dole outs, salary increases and promises of new buildings. Custodio noted, in particular, that the spike in basic goods prices has eroded the livelihoods of the ordinary soldier.

Since Duterte’s order to arrest and court martial Trillanes was published in a newspaper on Tuesday, the 47-year-old senator has taken refuge in his office at the Senate building by Manila Bay.

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Even though Duterte said on Saturday he would wait for the court to issue an arrest warrant, Trillanes is taking no chances.

Members of the police intelligence unit staked out the Senate on the morning Duterte’s proclamation revoking the senator’s amnesty was printed. They left, but two mornings later, two truckloads of soldiers parked outside the building. Duterte justified this saying Trillanes’ amnesty was void since no documents could be found to show he had applied for it and he had admitted he was guilty.

Asked whether he was scared of being arrested again, Trillanes told South China Morning Post he was not: “It may sound unnatural but I’m the kind of person to submit to God’s will or basically I’m a fatalist. I deal with situations as they come and face it as part of my life’s journey.”

He described his daily routine: “I start with a press conference and to make the daily updates and if there are issues that arose the previous night I address them. After that I continue my meeting with different support groups, political leaders, family and friends and my lawyer. Normally, then before the day ends, we assess the day that just passed and plan for the next day and succeeding days.”

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Besides his staff, the senator is supported by his group – the Magdalo – a band of ex-military officers who joined him in the two failed mutinies against former president Gloria Arroyo. They may have left the service years ago, but they still sport crew cuts. One has a faded tattoo which he etched with a knife inside his arm when he joined the Magdalo.

Trillanes employs many people and his office is crammed like a ship’s quarters.

He has been sleeping on a black leather couch, while others sleep on the floor in cubicles.

The office does not look like those of his fellow senators, but more like a bachelor’s pad, crammed with the sofa, a long conference table, a modest desk and cushioned stools and chairs. It is a room built for meetings, or, as the government has accused him, plotting conspiracies.

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Senate President Vicente Sotto III has promised to protect Trillanes from a warrantless arrest but told him to behave himself by limiting the number visitors and not having any religious meetings or mass actions. Four supporters who held up signs calling Duterte a “coward” were evicted.

X-ray scanners in the Senate lobby have had to deal with a steady stream of relatives, visitors pledging support, reporters and food deliveries.

“The sergeant-at-arms of the Senate is providing the security. It is more than adequate,” Trillanes said.

Duterte was in Israel when his orders against Trillanes were published. When he returned on Saturday, the president accused Trillanes of conspiring with “the yellows, liberals (a reference to supporters of former president Benigno Aquino) and also the [communist] politburo …[and] a foreign power” he did not name.

Duterte said he was confident Trillanes no longer had support in the Armed Forces because he had done nothing for the military.

“Only he benefited and he forgot his companions” when he became senator, the president said.

Trillanes called it “one of the lies of President Duterte”. He pointed out that he was the principal author of the amended Armed Forces Modernisation Law and a law raising the soldiers’ subsistence allowance. He also used state funds to build barracks in various army camps.

Custodio agreed the Magdalo, which includes Trillanes, Congressman Gary Alejano and former congressman Ashley Acedillo, has done a lot for the military.

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Custodio also said the military “blinked”. Now, instead of arresting Trillanes outright, Armed Forces spokesman Edgard Arevalo said it would wait for a warrant. Until then, it would not issue any more statements about Trillanes.

“By the mere fact that they ‘blinked’ means a considerable number were not happy [with Duterte’s move],” Custodio said.

The defence department also said it may have just misplaced Trillanes’ amnesty application.

Duterte now appears to be distancing himself from the issue, saying: “The truth is, it was [Solicitor General Jose] Calida who did the research on Trillanes’ case. When the SolGen says there’s something wrong, it has to be corrected. I cannot refuse.”

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Trillanes also blamed Calida – who is facing corruption allegations – accusing him of trying to derail a Senate inquiry that was supposed to happen the day news of Duterte’s proclamation broke.

“[On Tuesday] I was supposed to conduct a hearing for Calida’s corrupt activities,” Tillanes said. “So, it’s probably a pre-emptive move to prevent me from conducting the hearing.”

[NOTE: The author of this report had been summoned to the Calida hearing because of stories she wrote about the solicitor general’s private security agency winning lucrative government contracts.]