By Andrew Jonathan S. Bagaoisan
What the media expected was a little hell-raising at the confirmation of newly-appointed Interior secretary Mar Roxas and his replacement at the transportation department, Sec. Jose Emilio Abaya.
Yet that fizzled out as quickly as it came up.
Sen. Miriam Santiago raised her hand when Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile asked if there were any objections to Roxas’ confirmation.
Santiago later told reporters it was merely palabra de honor. She wanted to “wake up Malacañang” and had threatened to veto Cabinet members who failed to attend her investigation of interior undersecretary Rico Puno.
But after a quick break that followed her statement, Santiago withdrew her objection–to applause. Clapping is prohibited at the Senate plenary, but no one bothered then.
Roxas, a former senator, was a close colleague of Santiago’s (“Even his wife [Korina Sanchez] is very close to me,” she added). She didn’t want someone “needed in public service” to end up as “collateral damage” in a battle of hers.
Objection was futile anyway, Santiago said, since President Aquino could issue an ad interim appointment on September 22 if the Senate goes on break without confirming Roxas.
All’s well that ends well, and Abaya got confirmed as well.
But as the Senate reporters settled down to file their Roxas-Santiago stories, it turned out that wasn’t the last controversy of the day.
Our technical crew got a call that Sen. Antonio Trillanes IV would deliver a privilege speech at the plenary session. ANC planned to air it live.
The newsrooms had already been watching out for Trillanes. He was banner story in the Inquirer that day for holding backdoor negotiations with China on its territorial dispute with the Philippines over the Scarborough or Panatag Shoal. When ANC called him about it, he confirmed it.
So after Trillanes’ office put out word of his speech, the best guess was something about China.
Instead, he began with a familiar line that wasn’t his: “Gusto ko happy ka (I want you to be happy)”, the Senate President’s campaign slogan.
The real deal, Trillanes said, was “Kung gusto ko, isasagasa ko. Kung ayaw ko, uupuan ko. (If I want it, I’ll rush it. If I don’t, I’ll delay it).”
Trillanes blasted ongoing legislation to split the province of Camarines Sur, which was on the agenda that day.
We were transmitting the speech live, but ANC’s control room was not so sure if it was still relevant and air-worthy.
Then Trillanes bared that the bill was being railroaded as a political favor, and by no less than Senate President Enrile and for no less than former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
We had our other camera pan back to Enrile, who was smiling and shaking his head at each accusation.
When Trillanes ended, he had denounced Enrile’s moral authority to lead the Senate and then resigned from the majority bloc. ANC had now gone live.
Asking for an opportunity to answer, Enrile walked down from the presiding box to a lectern. He clearly was not happy.
“I can very well understand the purpose of this privilege speech,” Enrile said. “Today, somebody in this chamber was in the headlines for meddling in foreign affairs, and probably this is one way to camouflage it.”
While few had expected such a move, the papers a staff member soon handed to Enrile seemed to show he was prepared.
The papers with enlarged print contained notes supposedly taken by Philippine ambassador to China Sonia Brady from her conversations with Trillanes on the China issue.
When asked later about having those papers, Enrile said he had no idea Trillanes would launch an attack on him. He had long been gathering documents on the Scarborough issue and had them ready when he heard Trillanes would speak.
Enrile threatened to read them to the record. Trillanes warned that he could be divulging state secrets, but Enrile pressed on.
Trillanes earlier said he planned to miss the day’s session. But he said he was spurred to show up after he was called a “coward” two days before.
Now Enrile repeated that term as Trillanes suddenly left the session hall.
With no one to answer him, the eldest senator began a litany that incriminated the youngest as a “fraud”.
Two hours before the primetime newscasts, the top story was clear. But for a rare while in weeks, it was not a crime caught on cam.
Reporter Ryan Chua and I found ourselves giving the same story slug: “Trillanes versus Enrile”.
What else would you call it? With the many political issues brought into the fray, the event was best told through the personal frame of a tussle between politicians.
Politicos in the Philippines would hardly resort to the brawls seen in foreign parliaments. But some back-and-forths or raised voices might focus attention on political issues that would likely escape the primetime audience.
The division of Camarines Sur has long been an issue in the province.
During our coverage of the death and wake of DILG Sec. Jesse Robredo in Naga in August, the entire province was inundated with posters and billboards (even hats) saying both Yes and No to the split.
Even local television aired ads encouraging a “Yes” to the progress that would arise from having a Nueva Camarines alongside Camarines Sur.
Had the bill been passed and signed into law before the Senate went into recess, public opinion would have the final say in a plebiscite.
But the Senate failed to pass the Nueva Camarines bill on the third and final reading before October, when the filing of candidacies for local posts starts.
While economics has been the most bandied reason, a new province would mean more seats and more funds for Congress and the provincial capitols.
Trillanes, a CamSur native, called the bill “gerrymandering“, the term from US politics where states were divided into voting districts that favored the ruling party.
It wouldn’t be the first for Camarines Sur. In 2009, the first district was split, enabling former congressman Rolando Andaya to reclaim his seat and then-incumbent Rep. Diosdado Arroyo to run in the new second district.
But Trillanes’ co-senators also deny any backroom influence in the bill from Enrile.
The China issue which Enrile said Trillanes was skirting carried some heavy charges. “I think you have a duty to inform the Filipino people,” Enrile said.
Trillanes apparently had a difference of views with the foreign secretary Albert Del Rosario on handling the spat with China.
It showed in the supposed “Brady’s Notes” and even in closed-door chats with Enrile, where Trillanes accused Del Rosario of treason for wanting to involve other countries, particularly the United States, in mediating the dispute.
The Brady notes also showed that Trillanes was practically conceding the Panatag Shoal to China, allegedly saying “In the Philippines, no one cares about [it],” and that “We cannot enforce our coastal protection.”
Trillanes advocated one-on-one dealings with China with a more direct channel to Malacañang Palace other than the Foreign Affairs department.
He credited his 16 meetings with Chinese officials for defusing the tension and the number of Chinese vessels in the contested territory. And his role as unofficial envoy had the blessing of President Aquino.
The Palace maintains though that Trillanes volunteered to handle the talks.
These revelations implicated the lack of a united front in facing what Enrile and some other senators called a “potential enemy”.
But observers and officials have noted that backdoor foreign negotiations are not necessarily detrimental. Although they can be volatile for matters of state policy and security, especially when official and unofficial words differ.
Trillanes only showed up at the session hall after Enrile finished and left, as the discussion turned to the Nueva Camarines bill.
Some reporters earlier followed him to his office to ask about his walkout. The news channels were also calling for comment.
The primetime newscasts also wanted in, and Ryan Chua and the network reporters were waiting for a chance to bring the two senators to our live camera setups.
We had Trillanes first on TV Patrol.
As Trillanes defended the effects of his negotiating role, Enrile was being prepped for a live interview on GMA 7’s 24 Oras at the session hall, right beside our ABS-CBN control.
After that, Enrile quickly moved to our setup outside the hall for his interview with Noli De Castro, where he denied links with former President Arroyo. De Castro asked, “Happy ka ba?” and was answered with a “No”.
Back in the other hall, Trillanes was answering issues with Mel Tiangco on GMA.
All throughout, the two senators did not run into each other.