The Volatilian™ View

Tongue-tied on Hard Talk

Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes IV on BBC's Hard Talk interview with Stephen Sackur
Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes IV on BBC's Hard Talk interview with Stephen Sackur

Boy-scout impersonator, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV – the self-appointed champion of everything that denigrates and defames Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte – certainly lived up to his nickname, “Sonny”, during his performance on BBC’s Hard Talk last week (photo). He looked like a youth summoned to the headmaster’s study for telling tales out of school. If that’s the calibre of the Philippine opposition, thank the Lord above they’re nowhere near power. The Philippines has enough problems without it falling into the hands of an enfant terrible with an inflated ego like Sonny’s.

That ego, however, was very sharply deflated by seasoned interviewer, Stephen Sackur, who left the usually bombastic senator staring into the headlights like a deer transfixed. Sonny was in over his head. He looked more like a one-legged man at an ass-kicking contest than a thoughtful parliamentarian elected to scrutinise and reason the finer points of constitutional law.

It was a bumbling performance which left this normally insuppressible legislator visibly stunned. Sackur put him on the back foot with his opening question and left him there for the entire half-hour show as a global audience listened to one half-baked explanation after another. It may not have been embarrassing for Trillanes – like they say, where there’s no sense there’s no feeling; and there was certainly little sense in anything he had to say – but if fellow senators were fearing his display was being taken as a sample of the erudition of the upper chamber of the Philippine legislature by the global audience, they must have been praying for a power cut.

To be fair, the whole experience must have come as a real shock to Trillanes – he’s probably still wondering what happened. After all, it was an interview with a member of the mass media; it was supposed to be weighted to his advantage. That’s how it’s always worked before with The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine and the rest of them. It’s how it works with the obsequious superficial domestic press whose main function seems to be to issue press releases on behalf the anti-Duterte opposition – whether that’s members of the Liberal Party, the human-rights monopoly or the hierarchy of the Philippine Roman Catholic Church.

But in this one, there was no bias in his favour; no built-in prejudice against Duterte; no interviewer-assisted spirited bigotry against the president. This wasn’t a proper interview at all; how could it be, he was being questioned in it? Ok, ask questions of course; but sensible ones like. ‘Is it true Duterte sleeps hanging upside down and actually came to the Philippines from Transylvania 327 years ago?’ That’s the sort of thing people want to know. The media’s supposed to be on the same side. Why should Hard Talk be any different?

But different it was. This time Trillanes wasn’t fed the usual stream of questions based on Duterte’s presumed guilt as a murderer, a dictator and a madman hell bent on butchering his people; preconceptions that he has a mission to destroy his country and its economy in some Armageddon of his own perverse desire.

Oddly – and refreshingly – this interviewer didn’t allow himself to be spoon fed the elixir of propaganda which most media seem to dole out where Duterte’s concerned. Sackur challenged Trillanes to explain himself – in effect, he asked, how it is that the senator’s view of Duterte is diametrically opposite to that of the majority of the country? Why, if this president is such a force for bad, the interviewer asked, is he so hugely popular with his people – in essence, why do they see him as an overwhelming force for good?

His popularity rating remains in the 75% range, Sackur reminded him. “I’m just wondering if your comments, which are constantly negative, are out of tune with ordinary Filipino opinion,” Sackur queried.

Trillanes stumbling attempts to square that circle was toe-curlingly embarrassing. He said that Duterte’s current popularity rating would fall to “way below 50 towards the end of the year”. He didn’t provide any evidence of this happening other than to say later with a glazed look in his eyes: “I’ve seen it happen before”. Has he had a premonition; does he possess oracular powers? It’s frightening if that quality of reasoning is acceptable in the Philippine Senate; but if it is, it also explains a lot.

He did, however, give an explanation for Duterte’s popularity rating. Apparently, according to him, it’s because the ordinary people don’t have a clue about what’s going on in their country. “The bulk of the Filipino public are [sic] not really aware of what’s happening on the ground,” he explained.

It seems that while Trillanes has this clear perception of everything, the rest of the population is wandering around like zombies on Xanax or Diazepam. How fortunate they must feel to have an incisive mind like Sonny’s in the Senate looking out for their interests.

But he also explained why they are in that state. It seems they’ve been mesmerised by pro-Duterte propagandists who somehow have managed to nullify and out-voice a globally coordinated anti-Duterte onslaught by the international mass media, much of the domestic press and the combined efforts of Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, elements of the United Nations, the International Criminal Court and political allies from across the International Liberal Movement plus certain members from both houses of the US Congress and assorted spokespersons, panels and committee chairs of the European Union.

Of course, Trillanes wouldn’t normally admit that such a campaign existed – but then he did. Whether he was over-awed by the moment or rattled by the questioning is unclear but what he said is this: “The counter-propaganda machine of the Duterte administration is very effective”.

Oops!  “counter-propaganda machine”? He attempted to lip-synch his way out of that by then referring to the “propaganda machine of the Duterte administration”; but that blooper – that the pro-Duterte movement is defending the administration against anti-Duterte propaganda – hung around the senator’s neck like a burning noose.

Sackur asked about the invasion of Marawi City in Lanao del Sur, Mindanao by Maute Group jihadists. But while Trillanes conceded it to be a “national crisis,” he felt that the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) can overcome the challenge and subdue the Maute – saying, in effect, that Duterte’s proclamation of martial law was unnecessary.

Probably he’d had a premonition of that as well because to those of us not endowed with his skills of clairvoyance it looks like this massively outnumbered gang of thugs is still in control of the city after five weeks of battle. And that’s with martial law. Furthermore, it was martial-law checkpoints that enabled the AFP to capture a number of high profile terrorists – among them Mom and Pop Maute and a number of other Maute kith and kin. But let’s not be petty.

Trillanes also conceded that the Islamic State-linked Maute Group is capable of wreaking havoc right across the Philippines – “maybe deadly to the Filipino public,” he said, though “martial law is not the cure”. His reason? “It will affect the life of the Filipino and effect negatively the economy…”

Evidently, Trillanes believes his countrymen and the economy are in some way at less risk if the Maute Group and other Islamic State wannabes are not inconvenienced by martial law. The inference from what he said is that Filipinos prize their civil liberties above their lives. But if martial law isn’t an appropriate measure to deal with a “national crisis” that’s “maybe deadly to the Filipino public,” what is exactly? Trillanes believes better intelligence and better equipment is the answer – both of which, of course, are being put in place by Duterte.

His response also ignored all the graphic factual evidence of the impact Islamist terror can wreak on an economy. Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia – what are they, anomalies? Does Trillanes believe that couldn’t be replicated in the Philippines? And if such a threat unfolded, who would he like to see as the country’s commander in chief, Duterte or Trillanes’s sidekick from the Senate, fellow Duterte-basher, the custody-serving alleged drugs profiteer Leila De Lima? Or, VP Leni Robredo who continued with her Christmas holiday in New York as tropical cyclone Nina exploded through her home province of Bicol displacing 380,000 people. Are they safer hands?

For anyone out there who doesn’t know this yet, Trillanes’s main claim to fame is that he was involved in two coups – both abysmal failures – against a previous president of the Philippines, Gloria Macapagal Arroyo, whom he absurdly claimed had assumed power through a coup of her own. Ignoring the utter inaccuracy of that remark, according to his by-now trademark powers of reasoning that apparently legitimised his attempt to take down a president. Really? And he’s in the Senate interpreting the Constitution on behalf of the nation?

But we have another question. Is a man who showed so little military prowess as a small-scale coup leader the person the country should be turning to for guidance on the appropriate military strategy to fight and defeat groups like the Maute?

Sackur also brought up the War on Drugs – Duterte’s effort to rid the country of illegal narcotics. And here we were given a revelation. Apparently, according to Trillanes, the drug of choice in the Philippines is not crystal meth (shabu) – despite the thousands of crystal-meth labs that have been dismantled by Philippine law enforcement over the past year; despite the massive shipments of crystal meth that have been impounded. The biggest illegal narcotic in the Philippine, according to Trillanes is pot; marijuana.

It seems the Philippine National Police and the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency have been looking in the wrong place and for the wrong stuff. While they were knocking over crystal-meth factories in concealed barns and outhouses hidden deep in the countryside, the main source of drug addiction, good old-fashioned cannabis, was flourishing out in the open right under their noses. So from that we must assume that the hundreds of thousands of users who surrendered claiming to be shabu addicts were either hallucinating or didn’t know what they were imbibing. Forgive us, but we’re wondering at this stage what Trillanes is smoking.

And while he accepted that 98% of Manila’s barangays are under the influence of drugs, he pointed out – triumphantly – that “only 27%” of barangays in the rest of the country are narcotics-affected. That led him to suggest: “Our drug problem is not as bad as it seems”. Well, if you gloss over it like that maybe it doesn’t seem so bad. But let’s look a little closer at that 27% figure.

According to the Commission on Elections (COMELEC), in 2015 there were 42,036 barangays across the Philippines’ 81 provinces, covering 144 cities and 1,490 municipalities. Deduct from that the number of barangays in Metro Manila, 1,706, and we’re left with 40,330 barangays outside the National Capital Region (NCR). If drug addiction is a problem in “only 27%” of them that means it’s a problem in 40,330 barangays outside of Manila.

So what Trillanes dismisses as “only 27%” actually constitutes a drug prevalence which is 24 times greater than that of the NCR. Or should we say “only 24 times greater”? This computes to a 2,246% greater drugs incidence of barangay drug use outside the capital. Sorry, “only 2,246% greater”.

Another question from Sackur: “Are you a democrat Senator Trillanes?”. It wasn’t a trick question but it confused the senator. What the interviewer was trying to elicit was Trillanes’s commitment to democracy. He pointed out that Duterte had won a clear electoral victory to become president; that he was in that position because of the will of the people.

The two-time coup plotter, the man determined to effect regime change in Manila, the senator who believes the majority of the Philippine citizenry is out of step by supporting Duterte, said that indeed he is a democrat. Well by today’s definition of a democrat – someone who advocates democracy while suppressing all arguments and debate that run contrary to his/her own; someone who believes in his/her own right to non-accountability as strongly as in the accountability of others – he most certainly is.

This interview was embarrassing on many levels. It showed the Philippine political opposition as ill-prepared and amateur; it reflected badly on the Philippine Congress leaving the impression that the country’s legislature is being run by those with the loudest voices and the not necessarily the sharpest intellects, and it put to shame the media, particularly the domestic press, by giving them an object lesson in the purpose of their job: to hold politicians – even those they like to support – to account.

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