Battle-scarred Philippine general leads military command fighting terrorists

MANILA, Philippines – If you see him, remember to shake his left hand. Major General Cirilito Sobejana, new commander of the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) based in Zamboanga City, has quite a story that has made him a legend in military circles.

It was 1995. He was commander of the First Scout Ranger Company when he found himself in a heavy gun battle with Abu Sayyaf Group founding leader Abdurajak Janjalani and his men in Basilan.

The first bullet hit his right forearm as he was reaching out for the radio of a fallen soldier, desperate to establish communication with fellow Scout Rangers. A second bullet hit the same spot, almost severing it. A third shattered his rifle. He held his ground despite the blood and the pain, continuing to control fire directions to defend their position until reinforcement came. 

It was an act that saved their lives, although he would take two years to recuperate. The right-handed officer was also forced to train his left hand to fire his rifle. He was in the middle of his rehabilitation when he was awarded the Medal of Valor in 1997, the highest combat award for bravery and heroism in combat. (READ: Living Medal of Valor awardees)

More than two decades later, Sobejana continues to impress.

Guests at the 6th ID headquarters will see a long line of plaques on his shelves and framed newspaper clippings of his units' successful operations. He also attended courses at the US Army Logistics Management College in Fort Lee,Virginia, and The Asia Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

On Friday, June 28, he assumed command of a most critical military post that covers Western Mindanao, the bailiwick of terror groups.

Focus on ASG again

"I am very thankful to the leadership and President Rodrigo Duterte, most especially, for the continued trust and confidence in my competency as  combat commander. I will do my best effort to transform the Bangsamoro region into a better place for the people and attractive investment destination for the businessmen,” Sobejana told Rappler. Duterte informed him of his appointment during his visit at the 6th Infantry Battalion headquarters in Malabang, Lanao Del Sur, for the June 12 Independence Day celebration. 

Abdurajak Janjalani is long dead, but Sobejana has set his eyes on finally ending decades-long atrocities by his group. He said the military will work to gain the trust of the local population and seek its cooperation in fighting the terrorist group.

"Balik tayo sa  Abu Sayyaf sa Sulu (Let’s return our focus on the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu),” Sobejana said. “We identified a sub-leader who is Islamic State-inclined. I won't name him for now," he said.

Two years since Islamic State-linked groups attacked Marawi, the biggest crisis to hit the Duterte administration, Sobejana said aggressive military operations have reduced the strength of terrorist groups in the country. He dismissed the Maute Group and the Basilan faction of the Abu Sayyaf Group – the two main forces behind the siege – as “almost non-existent.”

This leaves the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) in Maguindanao, which have leaders who continue to fly the black flag of the Islamic State in the Philippines. 

These two provinces were his assignments before his appointment on Friday as Westmincom chief. 

Goal for Sulu

In Sulu, he will attempt to finish what he intended to do when he was appointed commander there in March 2017.

The war drums were beating for Sulu at the time and thousands of troops were deployed in the troubled province to fight the Abu Sayyaf Group. But the Marawi siege erupted and military operations were diverted to Central Mindanao. 

It became Sobejana’s task to make sure to contain Sulu and Abu Sayyaf fighters did not join the fighting in Marawi.

Martial law had been declared and the general most certainly used his powers. An amused official of the now defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) spoke of how the general surprised local officials when he suddenly showed up in a government meeting and asserted his authority to make sure they cooperated with the military. 

Sobejana said what he tried to do in Sulu was bring government services to many neglected areas. He said he knows that security problems cannot be solved solely through a military solution alone.

There was a time when he also ordered households to make sure all the family members were in front of their houses at a particular time in the afternoon where patrolling troops could see that no able-bodied fighter is missing from their homes.

Friendship with MILF

After a year in Sulu, Sobejana was promoted to lead the 6th Infantry Division (ID) based in Maguindanao, a  position that allowed him to work closely with Chief minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim of the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

“We are very close, actually. We are no longer two, he said. We are one in our fight against all the security challenges in the Bangsamoro region. They swore on the Koran that they will do their best in addressing all those practices that contribute to terrorism,” Sobejana said. 

Murad is the chairman of the former rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front that negotiated a new government more powerful that ARMM. 

As 6th ID commander, Sobejana also led security operations during the January 2019 plebiscite vote on BARMM and the May 2019 midterm elections. As violence threatened to sabotage these electoral processes, Sobejana gathered the politicians to ensure they cooperated with the military.

Sobejana, as Westmincom chief, will continue to play a key role in the continuing peace efforts with the MILF especially at a time that the former rebel group begins a process of setting aside its weapons.

“With my extended  period of assignment here in the Bangsamoro region and adjoining Christian provinces, I can say that the level of my comprehension of the dynamics of conflict and dynamics of peace is high. We will come up with a very responsive security template,” Sobejana said. 

But Sobejana’s success will not depend on his efforts alone. 

Analysts said the fulfilment of government promises to BARMM – in terms of powers and financial support – is the key. They cited the need for attractive incentive packages for MILF combatants, to entice fighters of the breakaway BIFF who might still be lured back to the fold and support the new government. 

What Sobejana doesn’t want to see under his watch are MILF fighters jumping to the BIFF because of failed promises and bigger financial offers from the other side. – Rappler.com