New AFP Chief Sobejana: The left-handed warrior and the fight against the Left

Chiara Zambrano, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Feb 10 2021 07:46 PM

MANILA — Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana salutes with his left hand. 

This may not be a big deal to civilians, and could very well even go unnoticed. But to the military, an organization moving to the cadence of rules and tradition, this is unheard of. Unless you are a sailor holding onto the rails of a moving ship, the salute is always rendered with the right hand. 

This is the highest gesture of respect, and there are no two ways about it. Yet the general doesn’t just get away with it, he also goes on to become the highest military officer of the land. 

On Feb. 4, 2021, Sobejana gave a snappy left-handed salute to President Rodrigo Duterte, who appointed him Chief of Staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

New AFP Chief Sobejana: The left-handed warrior and the fight against the Left 1
Newly-appointed AFP Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana wearing his Medal of Valor. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Army

CAPTAIN SOBEJANA

Sobejana stopped using his right arm in 1995, in a gun battle where he very nearly lost it.

He was Commander of the 1st Scout Ranger Company in the island province Basilan. According to the Philippine Army, then Capt. Sobejana received a report that there were more than a hundred armed men massing up in a village in Isabela town. Taking with him a platoon of 16 men, Sobejana headed to the site and spotted twenty of them. 

Sobejana’s men took their positions and opened fire. Little did he know that this would trigger the darkest 4 hours of his combat life.

As the platoon engaged the armed men in battle, more of them emerged from hiding – cutting Sobejana’s platoon from any reinforcement that could arrive. Sobejana was hit badly in the right arm – his shooting arm – with practically only the skin keeping it attached. His radioman, then huddled beside him, tried to save his arm with a tourniquet, but just as he was tightening the band both he and Sobejana were blasted by an RPG. 

Sobejana crawled out, carrying his nearly-severed arm, biting his right thumb to keep the whole arm from falling. He tried firing with his left hand, but soon his rifle was hit, too. Sobejana picked up his comrade’s radio to direct fire and call for reinforcement. Then, he picked up his fallen men’s firearms and continued to fight until reinforcement arrived.

New AFP Chief Sobejana: The left-handed warrior and the fight against the Left 2
Then Capt. Cirilo Sobejana is conferred the Wounded Personnel Medal award by then Defense Secretary Renato De Villa for his role in a major encounter against the Abu Sayyaf Group in Basilan in 1995, where he also earned his Medal of Valor. Photo courtesy of the Philippine Army

The group of armed men Sobejana had taken on was the newly formed Abu Sayyaf, led then by their founder Abdurajak Janjalani. Seven of the 16 troops died that day, and the entire platoon was wounded. The Army counted 42 deaths on the Abu Sayyaf side.

Two years later, Sobejana was awarded the Medal for Valor, the highest award for bravery in the military honoring “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty.” Only 41 Filipino soldiers have been given this medal since 1935, most of them posthumously. 

Sobejana was never able to regain complete use of his right arm, and the scars of battle are visible to this day. The AFP now lets him salute with his left hand, because the right has done more than enough.

SOBEJANA’S NEW FIGHT

Most of Sobejana’s military life was spent in western and southern Mindanao. He became the Commander of the 6th Infantry Division in Cotabato, Commander of Joint Task Force Sulu, Commander of the Western Mindanao Command, then eventually rising to become the Philippine Army’s Commanding General. His expertise and experience lie in fighting violent extremism and Islamic militancy.

However, he assumed leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines at a time when it is embroiled in a controversy outside of his usual view. 

For the past weeks, many citizens, universities, and sectors have condemned the military out for its widespread naming and shaming of citizens they brand as “communists.”

The dispute started on Jan. 15 when the Department of National Defense (DND) terminated its accord with the University of the Philippines, which existed to protect academic freedom by barring the presence of the police or military from any UP campus. 

Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and the AFP alleged that UP has become a haven of communist recruitment hiding under the accord’s protection. What followed was the release of names of alleged UP students who joined the New People’s Army (NPA) as “proof” of this. 

And then, a lot of public backlash.

On the same day as the abrogation of the accord, Lorenzana released a list of names of alleged former UP students killed or captured as rebels of the NPA

First on the list was Lorena Barros, a magna cum laude graduate of UP in 1970 who went underground during the dictatorship of then-President Marcos and became one of the most iconic women youth leaders of the resistance. 

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Barros was taken as a political prisoner and died in the hands of government forces. In her honor, UP Diliman named the Lorena Barros Hall in the campus after her. 

Barros’ name is also among those etched on the Wall of Remembrance at the Bantayog ng Mga Bayani, a list of more than 300 Filipinos martyred during the Marcos regime. A book titled “Six Young Filipino Martyrs” by Asuncion David-Maramba also tells her story alongside the biographies of Edgar “Ejop” Jopson, Lean Alejandro, and others. 

The AFP Information Exchange Facebook account next released another list of names on Jan. 22, again declaring certain persons as “killed or captured” members of the NPA. Six of these individuals came out together at a virtual conference to disprove the accusation that they were either dead, arrested, or members of the armed rebel resistance. 

The blunder caused the AFP to apologize, with Lorenzana calling it an “unpardonable gaffe” and ordering the relief of the Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence Maj. Gen. Alex Luna. The Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil Military Operations, Maj. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, meanwhile, went on leave.

Lorenzana recognized how these mistakes have affected the image of the entire AFP.

“There will be [an] adverse effect on the AFP’s credibility,” Lorenzana said. 

“But now it depends on how the AFP do the damage control. They should be issuing documents that are properly vetted from now on,” he added.

This is the stage upon which Lt. Gen. Sobejana’s 5-month stint as AFP chief is set – a soldier of great military renown tasked to stop the dwindling public trust in the Armed Forces.

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NOT ‘BOOBOOS,’ BUT RED FLAGS

Dr. Chester Cabalza, a defense analyst and former assistant professor at the National Defense College of the Philippines, saw the recent gaffes as indication that there might be a bigger problem in the military’s intelligence-gathering and vetting processes on the ground. 

This, he said, is a problem that will not be solved by a mere sacking of the heads of units.

“It all boils down to training,” said Cabalza. 

“Kailangan maging epektibo at maayos 'yung kanilang pagkuha ng datos dahil ginagastusan sila ng gobyerno, at pera rin ng tao 'yung ginagamit sa kanilang pagkuha ng impormasyon. At hindi dapat masayang ito,” the expert explained. 

(There should be an effective and proper gathering of data because they are being funded by the government, by the people. The taxes of Filipinos are being spent on this so the act of data gathering should not be put to waste.) 

He cited the need for internal reform and retraining if they are to regain the trust that the public has lost. 

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“Kung hindi tama ang datos, nagkakaroon talaga ng problema. At bumabalik din ito sa kredibilidad ng ating Armed Forces,” he said.

(If the data is questionable, there will be a problem. This boils down to the credibility of the Armed Forces.) 

Cabalza added that the military should further study the dynamics of progressive thinking, and not view it as a cut-and-dry evil that equates to the taking up of arms. 

“Sa bansa natin, maraming mga mamamayang may progresibong pag-iisip, at kailangang tanggapin ito ng ating Armed Forces,” Cabalza said. 

“Kailangan ng pagpapakumbaba sa liderato ng defense. Dahil may mga nasasaktang tao. At kailangang aralin nila uli ang kanilang mga stratehiya para hindi na muling makasakit sa mga taong nasasaktan nila.”

(In our country, there are so many citizens who think progressively. This should be accepted by the Armed Forces. Its leaders should be humble because people are getting hurt. They need to revisit their strategies to prevent this from happening again.) 

At the sidelines of his assumption ceremony, Sobejana said, “we were able to draw lessons from that experience,” adding the matter of wrong intelligence was being investigated and vowing to make public the results of their internal probe.

Despite the apologies, though, the red-tagging did not stop.

MORE SHOTS FIRED

Days after the AFP released the factually incorrect list, AFP Southern Luzon Commander Lt. Gen. Antonio Parlade named 18 other Philippine universities as alleged venues for communist recruitment. 

At a separate military-organized virtual event, a military asset introducing himself as former NPA rebel Joy James Saguino, likewise named specific colleges inside UP as “bailiwicks” of the Left, such as the Colleges of Fine Arts, Arts and Letters, and Mass Communication. 

This sparked yet another wave of pushback, with the heads of Ateneo de Manila University, De La Salle University, Far Eastern University, and the University of Santo Tomas releasing a joint statement of denial and condemnation. 

The President of the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila and UP President Danilo Concepcion released a statement anew defending the red-tagged colleges. During this time, social media was ablaze with angry comments, with some egging the military to act on China’s incursion in the West Philippine Sea as bravely as they have been acting against universities.

Last week, Parlade’s accusatory finger shifted again towards the media, calling Inquirer journalist Tetch Torres-Tupas a “propagandist” for publishing a story about two Aetas seeking relief from the Supreme Court for a case of torture in the hands of the military. Parlade called the story “fake,” insinuating further that Torres-Tupas could be charged for “aiding terrorists by spreading lies.”

This time it was members of the media, press corps, and colleagues who issued statements of condemnation for the tagging of Torres-Tupas. 

Some linked the threat to real physical harm because of the provisions of the new anti-terror law, which authorizes law enforcement agents to detain people without charge on mere suspicion of supporting terrorism.

Sobejana admitted that it was tricky to deal with Parlade, because while he is an AFP general, he has been speaking not for the AFP but on behalf of the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC), of which Duterte is chair.

“Of course, he is part of the Armed Forces, but for now he is dedicated as spokesperson... [Pero] reflective pa rin sa (But it's still reflective on the) organization. So we need to discuss all these things para ma-thresh out natin,” said Sobejana.

The day after his assumption, Sobejana, announced in an interview with ANC that the Armed Forces would be more careful with its pronouncements, without singling Parlade out.

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“Henceforth, my instruction was that whenever we talk, or whatever things we do, we should be very deliberate, we should exercise due diligence,” he said during the interview. 

“Para sa ganon makapagbigay tayo ng magandang serbisyo sa ating mga kababayan. We should not hurt anybody unless he is the enemy of the state. So we have to properly identify the enemies of the state, so that walang collateral damage, and so on.”

(In that way we will provide good service to the Filipinos.)

‘RED-TAGGING WILL BACKFIRE’

Lawyer Tony La Viña, former dean of the Ateneo School of Government, said he could not understand the hammerfisted style that the military has been using on the public. Knowledge of both strategy and history, he said, revealed very clearly that brute force does not work.

“Hindi ko talaga maintindihan – they should have known better. Kasi napag-usapan na namin ito, matagal na matagal na,” La Viña said, sharing that many of his own students were military officers. 

“Alam naman nila na ang ganitong paraan will only make their enemies stronger, will only make the Communist Party of the Philippines stronger. So hindi ko maintindihan, bakit nila pinipilit? At kung nag-aaral sila ng insurgency, ng revolutions, ang Communist Party, malalaman nilang mali itong ginagawa nila,” he explained.

(I can’t understand. We already discussed this before. They know that [red-tagging] will only make their enemies stronger. I can’t understand why they are doing this, why they keep on pushing on the issue. If they did their research, they will know that what they are doing is wrong.)

La Viña also noted that the AFP’s threatening stance would only push people to go underground once they feel that speaking their mind in the open could endanger their lives. 

Red tagging, he said, has also begun to unify public sentiment against the military and the government’s whole anti-insurgency campaign.

“'Yun ang kailangan nating sabihin – estupido ito. Hindi ito tama para sa gobyerno, para sa stratehiya nila, itong red tagging, itong pag-interfere sa academic freedom, itong driving people to go underground… going after people na nasa legal arena, sa Congress, sa university, sa press… all of this will backfire.”

(This is stupid. Red-tagging is not right, interfering with academic freedom, driving people to go underground... going after people in the legal arena, in Congress, in the university, in the press... all of this will backfire.)

The only way for the military to prove their allegations, La Viña said, is still to file charges in court, where they could submit the evidence they may have, and the accused would have the chance to defend themselves.

SOBEJANA’S 5-MONTH WINDOW

Whichever way he wants to resolve it, Sobejana will have 5 months to make it happen. He will retire from military service in August, upon reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56. For now, his pronouncements seem to take the direction of dialogue and transparency.

He vowed to reach out to the universities for a dialogue, the same way that Lorenzana met with UP President Danilo Concepcion.

Regarding Parlade’s accusations against Tupas, Sobejana has this to say: “We will validate the statement, we will discuss it, then we will present to the public whatever evidence we are able to gather, kung ano man ang magiging resulta ng investigation namin (whatever the result of our investigation may be).”

In principle, Sobejana grasped the consequence of the damage to public perception, and how it affects their own objectives.

“I do believe that for us to win this war, we should not just make ourselves bigger, but make the enemy smaller. So it’s better to gain friends than create enemies. We are mandated to serve the people. We should not appear as the enemy of the people.”

But with the government-imposed deadline of crushing the communist insurgency by the end of Duterte’s term, it remains to be seen how this left-handed warrior will lead the complex fight against the Left.