DAVAO CITY, Philippines – The man president-elect Rodrigo Duterte plans to make his National Security Adviser will prioritize peace talks with communist rebels instead of “decimating” them.
“The idea is not to decimate but to come into an agreement or a settlement where grievances can be addressed,” former Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief Hermogenes Esperon Jr told media.
As chief of staff under the administration of former president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, Esperon vowed to crush the communist New People's Army (NPA).
But the incoming commander-in-chief is taking a different approach toward the insurgency.
On early morning Sunday, May 22, Duterte said he plans to make Esperon his National Security Adviser. (READ: LIST: Who's who in the incoming Duterte Cabinet)
He said he had made the decision a long time ago, even while on the campaign trail.
“Tagal na. Pag-umpisa namin [sa kampanya] I was already joking. He would make an excellent [adviser],” Duterte told reporters. (A long time ago. When we began the campaign I was already joking. He would make an excellent adviser.)
Esperon was the longest serving chief of staff of former president Arroyo. He was accused of involvement in alleged cheating during the 2004 elections after being mentioned in the “Hello Garci” phone conversation recordings. He was later cleared of any wrongdoing after the release of a fact-finding report.
As AFP chief of staff, Esperon supervised Oplan Bantay Laya II, the counter-insurgency program designed to crush the NPA before 2010, the end of Mrs Arroyo's term.
A graduate of Class ’74 of the Philippine Military Academy, he has served as Presidential Security Group commander under the Ramos administration and has received several military service medals including the Presidential Merit Medal awarded by former President Fidel Ramos in 1998.
Tackling the insurgency
As national security adviser, Esperon will be taking on a vital role in meetings of the Security Cabinet Cluster composed of secretaries from the Departments of Interior and Local Government, Justice, and National Defense.
About rumors that he was Duterte’s other option for Defense Secretary, alongside Gilbert Teodoro, Esperon said he would have welcomed the post.
“It would have been a happy occasion. But I believe I could do more. I have an assignment from President Rody so let’s stick with this,” he said in a mix of English and Filipino.
“Why keep on fighting? Ang tagal-tagal na nating naglalaban eh (We have been fighting for such a long time). Why can keep on fighting when you can talk and tackle and settle on a lot of things?” said Esperon, echoing sentiments of Duterte.
He assuaged fears that the president-elect would allow a communist takeover of the government.
“While he is leftist, he is not a communist. He is a socialist so he doesn’t want armed struggle which is the method of the CPP-NPA. That cannot be. There must be only one entity in the Philippines that can bear arms and that is the Philippine government, its armed forces and police and its other armed services,” said Esperon.
On China, EDCA
The retired general also advises that the Philippines not treat China as an enemy despite the maritime dispute in the West Philippine Sea. But the diplomatic strategy would still be to assert Philippine ownership over “whatever comes within the 200 mile exclusive economic zone,” he said.
“Why should you look at China as an enemy? But you should remember that we have our national interest so that is what we will pursue and push for,” he added.
The Duterte administration would do well to pursue its rights based on the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).
Esperon believes the arbitration case currently being pursued by the Philippines in an international tribunal should be allowed to move forward.
The incoming administration would also continue implementing the Enhanced Defense Cooperation Act, a deal signed with the US government.
“We have already in place the EDCA. We have already the arbitration that is ongoing so those are acts of government which we cannot just abandon and change…Here we recognize that there are things that we can hold on to from the previous government,” said Esperon. – With reports from Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler.com
Pia Ranada covers the Office of the President and Bangsamoro regional issues for Rappler. While helping out with desk duties, she also watches the environment sector and the local government of Quezon City. For tips or story suggestions, you can reach her at email@example.com.