At Large

A man saying ‘no’

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I don’t know what “face” reelectionist Sen. Antonio “Sonny” Trillanes presented before the media gathering “Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel” yesterday (Tuesday).

To explain, he was asked if he was “always so serious” even with his friends and family. To which the senator, who is best known for his role in the Oakwood Mutiny and the takeover of the Manila Peninsula, as well as his skirmishes with Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile on the Senate floor, replied that in the military “we are trained to assume different personalities.” When told to put on their “parade face,” he said, they learn to look stern and unsmiling, to reply in short bursts of affirmatives, and keep a stiff bearing. But in the company of family, he said, “I can unbend and relax,” adding that, like all military personnel, he loves to sing and even indulges in a bit of ballroom dancing.

Admittedly, it’s a strain on the imagination to picture the senator traipsing on the dance floor. And he does seem a bit embarrassed when asked to share more of his personal life. He met his wife, Arlene Orejana, at the Philippine Military Academy, where she was a cadet two levels below him. “But I courted her only after I graduated from the academy,” he clarified. Arlene joined the army after she finished her course, then joined the “Corps of Professors.” Currently, she is teaching in the private sector.

The couple have two teenage children, Francis Seth and Thea Estelle. A few years ago, their third child, Alan Andrew, was born with a congenital illness and passed away after just 20 days. A ripple of sympathy swept through the tables of media women and a few media men, but Trillanes himself kept a stoic front.

* * *

Actually, it’s quite a relief to delve into the personal details of this military rebel turned senator, and for him to be so forthcoming with the details.

Before we ventured into “slum book territory,” Trillanes spoke at length on several controversies, including how he came to be involved in back-channel negotiations with China over the Scarborough Shoal, and how he ended up sheltering at the Peninsula after a hearing on the Oakwood Mutiny.

But these were off the record, and fascinating as these revelations were (they hardly received any on-record coverage), we had to keep our word. Suffice it to say that when Enrile brought up his role in the talks with China, Trillanes said he was taken aback because it was his understanding that the episode was a state secret. That was, we opined, vintage Enrile, with the wily litigation lawyer bringing up an entirely different and sensational matter when he (Enrile) found himself being ambushed on the issue of the proposed gerrymandering of the province of Camarines Sur to favor a political ally.

One would think, though, that being on campaign mode, and in a most sensitive period—barely two weeks before the polls—a candidate like Trillanes would rather play it safe and speak in platitudes. (Like other candidates we know who avoid one-on-one interviews, let alone debates, following perhaps the adage of “less talk, less mistakes; no talk, no mistakes.”)

* * *

Well, Sonny Trillanes certainly had a lot to say, and not just about his involvement in military uprisings (one reason voters are still leery of him and his ilk), but also about the political culture and the decidedly uneven distribution of political spoils in the legislature.

Aside from his military adventurism, for which he spent more than seven years in jail, Trillanes is known for his staunch opposition—to put it mildly—to the administration of Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Then again, if we knew as much as he did about the backdrop of the then administration’s plans for Mindanao and its penchant for manipulating events and public opinion, maybe we would have shared the same mindset.

Still, as a senator, Trillanes has been no slacker. He ranks second among the senators in terms of the biggest number of national bills sponsored and committee hearings conducted. Among the bills he has shepherded into law were the “New AFP Modernization Act” of which he was coauthor; the law authorizing the “immediate release” of retirement benefits for government employees; the redrawing of maps defining Philippine territory; and the “Expanded Anti-trafficking in Persons Act,” of which he was principal author.

* * *

Joining Trillanes at the forum was another ex-putschist, former Col. Ariel Querubin, best known for his involvement in a standoff with GMA troops at the Marine headquarters. Asked to introduce himself, Querubin, a Medal of Valor awardee, only half-jokingly introduced himself as a soldier “who has probably fought all armed groups in the country: the MNLF, the MILF, the Abu Sayyaf, the NPA, but the most deadly was our own military.”

Now employed in the private sector, Querubin sometimes stands in for Trillanes in campaign sorties, probably because, while Querubin is much older, he shares much the same sentiments, experiences and insights into the national condition as the senator.

Before the “Bulong Pulungan,” in conversations with friends and family, I had expressed reluctance about voting into office any more military adventurists, who used arms (or the threat of arms) against the state, only to take advantage of the resultant publicity to catapult themselves into national office. Trillanes was one of those on my list.

But listening to his stories, particularly his “deep background” accounts, one begins to rethink this aversion, at least to this particular mutineer. As a publicity material puts it, quoting Albert Camus, “What is a rebel? A man who says no.”

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