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Trillanes must explain Panatag mess

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“Secretary Cayetano puts it succinctly — it was the advice of Trillanes, which the latter gave to Aquino III, that led to the Chinese occupation of Panatag Shoal today.”

Last week, Foreign Affairs Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano and ex-Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile made quite a revelation regarding the current controversy in Scarborough Shoal, also known as Panatag Shoal, off the coast of Zambales province.

Panatag Shoal has been a source of livelihood for Filipino fishermen since locals in Zambales can remember. When the American naval base at Subic was still around, Filipino fishermen could avail of its maritime bounty, free from harassment from foreign sailors.

After the lease on the naval base was terminated during the administration of Aquino III’s mother, then President Corazon Cojuangco Aquino, Communist China began making several incursions in the area. Beijing says that the shoal, and many other islets in the area, belong to China on the basis of a self-serving regional map the Chinese are invoking.

Despite Beijing’s early intrusions at Panatag Shoal, Philippine ships were deployed there to press the Philippine claim to that area. Under International Law, actual occupation of a disputed territory is a legal advantage.

Enrile said that six years ago, Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had been making secret trips to Communist China with the explicit consent of President Aquino III. Enrile disclosed that he warned Aquino III that Trillanes’ “back channeling efforts” was not in the best interests of the Philippines. This incident was reported in the news media back then.

Despite Enrile’s exposé in 2012, Aquino III and Trillanes did not make a full disclosure of the latter’s “secret missions.” Political analysts noted that the stealth in Trillanes’ trips made his trips to the Chinese mainland very suspicious.

By 2012, Communist China had been sending ships to the disputed area, in the guise of fishermen. They also built temporary shelters in the nearby islets.

The mystery behind Trillanes’ “secret missions” notwithstanding, and after his clandestine trips were exposed, President Aquino III ordered the pullout of all Philippine ships from Panatag Shoal. The pullout order was made apparently on the impression that the Chinese will also pull out of the area. Sadly, the Chinese intruders remained in the area and even expanded their infrastructure there.

Secretary Cayetano put it succinctly — it was the advice of Trillanes, which the latter gave to Aquino III, that led to the Chinese occupation of Panatag Shoal today. Judging from the kind of infrastructure the Chinese have constructed in the disputed region — which includes air strips and low-rise buildings — they have no plans of leaving the place any time soon.

One explanation Aquino III must make is why he designated Trillanes as his clandestine emissary to Communist China regarding the territorial dispute in the West Philippine Sea.

Trillanes has no formal training or practical experience in International Law. Even his unpolished manners in the Senate make him an impractical choice for a diplomat.

Trillanes’ only credential is that Aquino III considers him a loyal underling. Prior to his election to the Senate in 2007, Trillanes was a rebel soldier who tried to overthrow the government of then President Gloria Arroyo. After bungling his coup attempt, Trillanes was thrown in a military stockade.

In May 2007, Trillanes ran for the Senate while he was under detention. Trillanes won sympathy votes and landed a seat in the Senate. Despite his poll victory, Trillanes remained in detention for the remainder of the term of President Arroyo.

Upon his election in May 2010, President Aquino III considered himself Arroyo’s foe. Treating Arroyo’s enemies as his allies, Aquino III ordered the immediate release of Trillanes. Since then, Trillanes has become a devoted minion of Aquino III.

Because Aquino III and his cohorts in the much despised Liberal Party are openly against President Rodrigo Duterte, Trillanes considers Duterte as his enemy. This is quite manifest from Trillanes’ decision to run for vice president in the May 2016 elections. Since it was unlikely for Trillanes to win the vice presidential derby back then, he used the campaign season as an opportunity to heckle and embarrass Duterte. In the end, Duterte won the presidential race, and Trillanes lost his vice presidential bid.
Critics of Senator Trillanes maintain that his coup attempt against then President Arroyo reveals much about the senator. As a soldier, Trillanes took an oath to defend the Constitution, and to be loyal to the president as the commander-in-chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Trillanes’ attempt to topple the Arroyo administration was a violation of that oath.
Since Trillanes violated his oath as a soldier, it is now very difficult to believe him. On this premise, Trillanes should not just be made to explain the mess he created in Panatag Shoal, but likewise convince the news media and the public that his explanation should be believed.
A few weeks ago, a former congressman threatened to file a criminal case for grave threats against Trillanes. In reply, Trillanes said the congressman concerned has “zero credibility.” For a senator whose credibility is very doubtful, that remark arguably qualifies as the understatement of the year.
At the end of the day, it not enough for the current administration to blame Aquino and Trillanes for the Panatag Shoal mess. Something should be done to restore Philippine sovereignty in the area. A shooting war with Communist China is out of the question since it is a fight the Philippines cannot win, thanks to the miserable state of the AFP. Since the diplomatic option does not work with Beijing, it’s time for the creative geniuses in the government to come out with some other course of action.

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