New AFP chief vows to go after 'real threat,' avoid collateral damage

enablePagination: false
maxItemsPerPage: 10
maxPaginationLinks: 10

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, February 4) — Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana is aiming at destroying local terrorist groups in his six-month stint as Armed Forces of the Philippines chief, promising to “go fast” while being mindful to avoid missteps.

“My focus now is going after the real threat – the communist terrorist group as well as the local terrorist groups,” Sobejana said in an interview with CNN Philippines.

He mentioned the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing New People’s Army, which the executive department recently designated as terrorist organizations, as well as Islamic militant groups Abu Sayyaf, Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, Dawlah Islamiyah-inspired groups, Maute, and remnants of the Ansar Al-Khilafa Philippines.

“We should be able to destroy the right target, because going fast pero hindi naman (but not) deliberately done, we might experience or incur collateral damage which we do not like,” Sobejana stressed.

In a speech during the change of command ceremony on Thursday, Sobejana said there will be no human rights violations in his anti-terrorism campaign.

“Rest assured that your soldiers, all your soldiers -- airmen, sailors and marines -- of the Armed Forces of the Philippines will do their job, following the rule of law, give due respect to human rights and strictly adhere to the provisions of the international humanitarian law,” he said.

While authorities previously failed to meet self-imposed deadlines in ending the communist movement, Sobejana said these are just for planning purposes. “In my case, because I will be retiring on July 31 this year, I set that as my timeline,” he said.

Red-tagging controversy

Sobejana, former commanding general of the Army, took the helm of the AFP amid investigation into the publication of an erroneous list tagging several alumni of the University of the Philippines as members of the NPA.

Under the leadership of Gen. Gilbert Gapay, the AFP apologized for what Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana called an “unpardonable gaffe,” and launched an internal investigation. Sobejana said the AFP has learned from its mistake and “will certainly sanction the people involved in the exposure of that erroneous list.”

Maj. Gen. Benedict Arevalo, Deputy Chief of Staff for Civil-Military Operations, earlier took a leave of absence to ensure an independent probe, while the one who replaced him, Maj. Gen. Alex Luna was relieved from his post.

The CPP itself is protesting its designation by the Anti-Terrorism Council, saying it has a “legitimate” national cause. President Rodrigo Duterte and his men have been calling the communist rebels as terrorists since peace talks broke down in late 2017. Despite the lack of court proscription, the highly contested Anti-Terrorism Act allowed the executive to make the terrorist designation.

Framers of the Constitution, legal experts, and human rights advocates filed petitions urging the Supreme Court to junk the anti-terrorism law. They say victims of red-tagging are put in danger, citing the killings of lawyer Benjamin Ramos and activist Zara Alvarez.

READ: Here are the major issues raised against the Anti-Terrorism Act

In his retirement speech, Gapay said the military has “neutralized” more than 1,300 members of the “communist terrorist group,” adding that 4,000 others have withdrawn support from the movement. The CPP claims reports on mass surrenders are fabricated.

'AFP just part of the solution'

Meanwhile, war is not the only option in ending the country’s security problems, Sobejana said, stressing the need to gain the full support and cooperation of the public.

“Our effort as part of the Armed Forces is just part of the solution and the more sustainable one is operations other than war, as what I have said, especially provision of livelihood among our people,” Sobejana said.

“Ang mahirap kung nakakapitan nila itong mga rebelde at masasamang elemento (If the poor can count on the rebels and lawless elements), so we really need to engage everybody,” he added.

Like his predecessor, Sobejana has only six months to lead the AFP, but he is confident about causing a big blow if not eradicating local terrorist groups.

“I'm looking forward that before I finally bow out from the military service, before I hang my uniform, we are able to experience a better Philippines in terms of security and economy, because economic progress will be the end result of the peace and order,” Sobejana said.

Apart from accomplishing this mission, Sobejana also promised to look after the morale and welfare of soldiers. Sobejana, a member of the Philippine Military Academy’s “Hinirang” Class of 1987, is the first Medal of Valor awardee to be appointed AFP chief in more than seven decades. He received the highest military award for leading a ranger unit in a deadly clash against more than 150 members of the Abu Sayyaf group in Basilan in 1995.

READ: New AFP chief seeks to strike balance between mission accomplishment, soldiers’ welfare

Catch CNN Philippines' exclusive one-on-one interview with AFP Chief Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana on Thursday, 8:30 p.m.