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Visaya: AFP backs peace talks, will ‘finish’ Abu Sayyaf

MANILA, Philippines – New Armed Forces chief of staff General Ricardo Visaya assumed command of the 120,000-strong military on Friday, June 30, and vowed to support the peace process with communist and Muslim guerrillas yet at the same time crush the Abu Sayyaf.

Visaya acknowledged the “era of change” under President Rodrigo Duterte, saying the military will heed the key directives from the commander-in-chief: work for peace, assist the police in running after criminals, stop corruption, protect the country’s territory, and help communities during disasters.

The veteran combatant opened his speech by immediately addressing “malicious allegations” against him in relation to human rights abuses he allegedly committed as a commander. Visaya was referring to leftist groups’ claims of abuse when he was battalion commander assigned in Tarlac, where soldiers clashed with protesting farmers at Hacienda Luisita. The hacienda was owned by the family of former President Benigno Aquino III.

He could not have been behind those abuses, Visaya said, because as a young soldier under the Marcos regime, he himself witnessed the excesses of the military.

Some of Visaya’s fiercest critics belong to the leftist movement that supported Duterte and whose key leaders now occupy key government posts.

Visaya declared that under his command, the military will support the peace process with the Left and the Muslims, and participate in “consensus building.” The Duterte administration will soon be resuming peace talks with the communists.

Visaya noted that the armed forces anyway is already on its “final push” in the campaign to end Asia's most stubborn insurgency.

Visaya also said the military will realign its resources to go after criminals masquerading as religious fighters, referring to the Abu Sayyaf. “Our operations against the Abu Sayyaf will be unrelenting,” Visaya said. “We will hunt them down and finish them.”

Given these priorities, the military will continue to defend Philippine territory in the face of our maritime disputes, and lead rescue and relief efforts during disasters, according to him.

“Every soldier is a fighter, law enforcer, rescuer, a reformed man,” Visaya said.

He also stressed that "change is coming" and that the military will have to "embrace it from within."

The new AFP chief acknowledged one thing though: he will have to implement these goals in 6 months. Visaya reaches the mandatory retirement age of 56 in December 2016.

Twice bypassed for the top Army and AFP posts under the previous administration, Visaya has combat experience in the strongholds of communist guerrillas and in the remote towns controlled by Muslim rebels and terrorists. 

His last assignment prior to his promotion to the top military post is the Southern Luzon Command based in Quezon, where he served as its commander. Under the Aquino administration, Visaya served as battalion commander in Basilan and division commander in the 4th infantry division based in Cagayan de Oro.

He was shortlisted for Army chief and AFP chief, respectively, but Aquino ended up choosing Visaya's Philippine Military Academy (PMA) classmates (1983) for these posts: Lt Gen Eduardo Año, who is now Army commanding general, and Hernando Irriberi, who stepped down as AFP chief before the May 2016 elections. 

Some said Visaya was not chosen because he was not associated with then defense chief Voltaire Gazmin.

Under the Duterte government, however, Visaya's former mentors in the Army are well-placed: Hermogenes Esperon Jr, now the National Security Adviser and former Army chief Dionisio Santiago, former senatorial candidate who was endorsed by Duterte, among others.

Visaya was one of the first appointments of Duterte, announced shortly after the elections. – Rappler.com