Philippine Senator Antonio Trillanes (C) speaks during a stand-up press conference at the Senate in Manila on September 4, 2018 as follow lawmakers stand around. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte ordered on September 4 the arrest of Trillanes, a lawmaker fiercely critical of his deadly drug war, the leader's second detractor from the Senate under threat of detention. / AFP PHOTO / TED ALJIBE

Trillanes for president? Not yet. Senator Antonio Trillanes IV does not plan to vie for the highest office in the Philippines come 2022. Many may disagree, but President Rodrigo Duterte’s continuous harassment of and threats against the opposition, particularly Trillanes, has made him a sort of symbol of democracy.

The senator’s term ends this year, but Trillanes says he will remain in the public eye. He says he might teach, continue his advocacy work, be a resource person on various political issues, and most importantly, raise his voice against Duterte.

“The problem right now, the threat to our democracy is very real. I’m devoting my energy in making sure that we keep our democracy. We cannot look far ahead because Duterte is determined to destroy our democracy,” Trillanes told this author in an exclusive interview.

He belongs to a group of senators who are uniting the opposition under Vice President Leni Robredo.

Trillanes’ life story is movie material – military adventurism, jailed for seven and a half years, elected as a senator, and eventually becoming the nemesis of two Philippine presidents, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and Rodrigo Duterte.

Trillanes first made headlines on July 27, 2003, during the failed Oakwood Mutiny at the Oakwood Premier Ayala Center, serviced apartment towers in Makati. Lieutenant Senior Grade Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes IV of the Philippine Navy, and Army Captain Gerardo Gambala led a group of 321 armed soldiers in a plot to overthrow then-president Macapagal-Arroyo’s corrupt government. They called themselves Bagong Katipuneros (new revolutionaries) but later “Magdalo” (to attend to or take action) in reference to the flag that national hero Andres Bonifacio used in his revolt against Spain in 1896. Magdalo is now known as  Magdalo Party-List.

Trillanes and his men were charged with rebellion. While in detention, he ran as an independent senatorial candidate and was proclaimed a senator-elect on June 15, 2007, with an overwhelming 11 million votes.

Trillanes lawyers’ filed a motion asking that he be allowed to fulfill his duties as a senator, but this was denied by the courts several times. He raised his petition to the Supreme Court in an en banc resolution and directed the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Makati Regional Trial Court to comment within 10 days on Trillanes petition. This never happened. Trillanes walked out of his hearing at Makati Regional Trial Court. Together with Brigadier-General Danilo Lim and 25 Magdalo soldiers, they staged another attempt to overthrow Arroyo’s administration on November 29, 2007.

In 2010, Trillanes was given an amnesty during the term of president Benigno Aquino III. He was re-elected in 2013. He became the top-performing senator with the most bills passed into laws, resolutions and committee reports filed.


As the most vocal opponent of Duterte, Trillanes does not wince at death threats.

“Duterte wants me killed or put away in prison the same way he did to Senator Leila de Lima,” he said.

Trillanes alleged that the president’s son, Paolo Duterte is a member of the Chinese triad that is responsible for drug shipments in the Philippines. Duterte then ordered the revocation of Trillanes’ amnesty on September 4, 2018.

“When Duterte revoked the amnesty and directed the security forces to arrest me, they did not follow him,” Trillanes said.

Trillanes believes there is a limit to what orders Duterte can successfully give to the AFP.

Despite the threats of imprisonment or, far worse, being killed, the Trillanes family are able to insulate themselves.

“In a way, my detention prepared them for these difficult phases in our life. I’m not saying they are not affected in any way, but whenever they see me not affected by events, it helps them. They are drawing the strength from me,” he said.


Duterte supporters have resorted to name-calling, especially in social media. The DDS (Die-hard Duterte Supporters) call Trillanes “Trililing,” which is  Tagalog slang for someone who has lost his marbles.

Trillanes says he is not affected by this label. He deactivated his personal social media accounts, but he has a Facebook page that is maintained by his staff.

“I don’t interact in social media, especially in the age of trolling and fake news. It can be too harsh,” he said.

Sense of commitment

His time in prison molded him, making him become more committed to his cause of exposing corruption in the government. And he has made it an obligation to the people.

“As a former soldier there is a sense of duty, and this must come first more than anything. I really believe that when I was elected by the people under extreme circumstances they literally pushed me into the political arena, because they want me to serve them,” he explained.

Trillanes may be an admired political figure in the United States and Europe but not in some Asian countries where Duterte’s “war on drugs” and brand of leadership are recognized as legitimate.

This does not surprise Trillanes.

“Some governments in Asia have similar situations like ours. Having authoritarian regimes, they won’t be able to empathize to our situation.”

Greatest fear

Trillanes has expressed his fear that the Philippines could soon lose its democracy. Duterte has been using tactics to divert the attention of the public from his real intention – the charter change that would lead to federalism and prolong his term. Early in his presidency, Duterte wanted to proclaim a “revolutionary government.” He systematically attacks and undermines different institutions, particularly the Commission on Human Rights.

Trillanes also mentioned that Duterte was conscious of the possibility of fomenting a coup d’état, thus he courted the AFP early on by doubling their salaries, continuing the modernization started by the Aquino administration, and appointing retired senior military officials to his cabinet.

A better Philippines

“Our group’s [Magdalo] vision for our country is to have peace, progress and prosperity, with a united and empowered citizenry,” Trillanes said.

But with Duterte as a president, it is unlikely to be achieved, yet Trillanes believes that the Philippines can recover and rebuild itself post-Duterte.

Trillanes also calls on to Filipino expatriates not to give up their hopes for the Philippines.

“I don’t blame the Filipinos abroad who are ashamed of the government. What we are experiencing in the Philippines is just another phase. Duterte cannot hold on to power forever. We will start anew,” he said.

Regardless of their political affiliations, Trillanes says he is grateful for the sacrifices of overseas Filipino workers, and their support they give to their families that in turn keeps the economy afloat despite rising inflation.

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