Our nearly hour-long Zoom conversation with Lieutenant General Cirilito "Lito" Sobejana, newly installed commanding general of the Philippine Army, on Monday, August 10, was bookended by a light conversation about pilgrimages to the Holy Land.
There’s a kind of devotion in the way Sobejana reminisced about the places in Israel, Jordan, Egypt, and Syria that are important to the Christian faith. After all, he had a meaningful and impactful year-long stint as chief of staff of the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force (UNDOF) stationed in the Golan Heights almost a decade ago.
The bemedaled Sobejana’s time wearing the peacekeeper’s blue beret was just as compelling as his exploits in the jungles of Mindanao fighting terrorists.
Sobejana served at the UNDOF at the height of the civil war in Syria. He remembered one time they were holding an ambassador’s day which was interrupted by an explosion. “Hindi natapos ang ambassador’s day (We didn’t finish the ambassador’s day),” Sobejana said. Everyone had to leave for their own safety.
A couple of months after Sobejana began his work as UNDOF chief of staff in early 2013, Syrian rebels kidnapped 21 Filipino peacekeepers in the Golan Heights. Sobejana was part of the UN team that ensured their safe release.
More than a year after the incident, he was back in the Army as its operations officer in Manila when another group of Filipino peacekeepers found themselves in a standoff with Syrian rebels. They received orders from the then-UNDOF chief to follow the rebels’ demand to surrender their firearms in exchange for the release of kidnapped Fijian peacekeepers.
Thousands of miles away, in Manila, Sobejana's UNDOF experience and network became invaluable to the battle staff at Camp Aguinaldo working closely with the Filipino peacekeepers, who were in a fierce gun battle with the rebels and who later managed to reposition themselves by outwitting the Syrians. (READ: PH pulling out peacekeepers in Liberia, Golan Heights)
“Exciting na nakakatakot (It was exciting and at the same time, scary),” was how Sobejana described his stay in one of the most dangerous places in the world.
Being Army chief would mean being away from the battlefield, with days a bit quieter, made a little bit more predictable by paper work and meetings.
It seems, however, that Sobejana, a 1987 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) and a Medal of Valor awardee, is meant for a warrior’s life.
He is heading the 100,000-strong Army with a nation terrified not only of a pandemic but also of a new Anti-Terrorism Law seen to have provisions that could trample on human rights.
As everybody awaits the measure’s Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR), petitions against it have been filed one after the other with the Supreme Court.
It seems, there would be no quiet time for Sobejana.
He will be retiring in July 2021, when he turns 56 years old, the mandatory retirement age in the uniformed service. He will be Army chief for only a year.
Sobejana is banking on a "much increased convergence among stakeholders," that with President Duterte's Executive Order 70, "all sectors of government will do their part in our campaign against different threat groups."
"(With that), I think we can put a rapid conclusion to the menace of insurgency and terrorism," he said, when asked what he could achieve in a year as Army commanding general.
EO 70 created the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC). It is an entity under the Office of the President which has become controversial within a year of its organization. (READ: Gov't platforms being used to attack, red-tag media)
But Sobejana, as he has always been wont to do, does not foray into politics. He looks at EO 70 and the task force as a way to have consultative meetings with the military’s partners in the civil government, local government units, the academe, religious leaders, and traditional leaders.
In his first command conference as Army chief held in early August, Sobejana emphasized that the Army must follow the rule of law and respect human rights. (READ: New Army chief vows no abuse of anti-terror law under his watch)
Lieutenant General Cirilito Sobejana
Sobejana mentioned 3 imperatives in strategy: “We do our job following the rule of law, with due respect to human rights and since we are in the profession of arms, we should adhere to the International Humanitarian Law. It is part of our operational strategy, 'yung itong tatlong imperatives na ito (these 3 imperatives).”
Sobejana said it is important that soldiers are educated on the provisions of the Anti-Terrorism Law.
“We don’t want to make a mistake in the implementation (of the law). Everybody is looking at us in implementing, enforcing the law. What we need here are self-restraint and discipline and we perform our tasks with the best understanding of each provision,” Sobejana said.
Sobejana said the Army will follow the mechanisms indicated in EO 70 in reaching out to different sectors of society to allow everyone to understand the anti-terror law.
“We have to engage them and request them to help us disseminate the provisions of the law,” Sobejana said.
Sobejana said the communist insurgency remains the biggest threat he has to address as Army chief.
“The most potent one is the NPA (New People’s Army) being a threat across the archipelago,” he said.
Other threat groups are concentrated in specific areas – the Abu Sayyaf in the South, particularly Sulu and Basilan; the Bangsamoro Freedom Fighters are in Central Mindanao, particularly Maguindanao; and the remnants of the Dawla Islamiyah-Maute group are in Lanao del Sur.
Sobejana is confident that with the dwindling “number” of Maute members, the military could put an end to this terrorist group that razed Marawi City to the ground 3 years ago.
Sobejana said that the military was also able to disrupt the incursions of NPA fighters from Bukidnon into Lanao del Sur to create a so-called “Moro front” with the remnants of the Maute fighters. The group was first monitored when Sobejana was the commander of the Army’s 6th Infantry Division based in Maguindanao in 2018.
He said the attempt of the Bukidnon NPA to establish an alliance with the Maute fighters as a means to “survive” will not last because of the basic differences between the two groups’ ideologies and religion.
“Lately, we had a series of skirmishes against them. We don’t allow them to gain ground in the province of Lanao del Sur. We are pushing them back to Bukidnon and we are closely coordinating with our adjacent units under the Eastmincom (Eastern Mindanao Command),” he said.
Sobejana added: “This time that I am commanding general of the Philippine Army, I have to really build or focus on our capability build up as well as our gains. We need to exploit whatever gains we achieve for our peace efforts to be long and lasting.”
At the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom), he said, “You name the threat, we have it.” (READ: Battle-scarred Philippine general leads military command fighting terrorists)
Sobejana’s tenure as its commander made him all the more understand and appreciate “the mission-essential requirements of our troops, both equipment and competencies among our soldiers.”
“Because no amount of having very sophisticated weapons system [would be effective] if we don’t have excellent soldiers behind them,” he said.
In this time of the pandemic, however, Sobejana conceded that it is easier to dodge a bullet than a minute, mutating novel coronavirus. (READ: PH Army marks 123rd anniversary on frontlines vs coronavirus)
He apologized for having to wear a mask throughout the interview because he was still in a room with a couple of his staff. There were times when his voice was muffled.
“I couldn’t take it off because we have to protect ourselves 24/7. Just a while ago, I had engagements with people outside and even if we were only a handful, we don’t take off our masks. We have to live with the new normal. This is the reality and we accept that,” he said.
As a family man, he also wants to make sure that his wife and 5 children would be safe from him as he is exposed daily to different people.
Ironically, this happens now when he is stationed at the Army headquarters and he can go home to them every day after work, unlike when he was in the field.
Except for the deployment of troops – some are in the field, some are in the communities – Sobejana, however, thinks not much would change in the Army itself within a year of the pandemic.
He is hopeful that a vaccine would help bring things back to normal by next year. In the meantime, Army personnel are given anti-pneumonia and anti-flu shots, he said.
The pandemic slowed down the enemies “a little bit,” Sobejana said.
He added that with the “substantial amount of forces” allocated in the government’s pandemic response, the number of soldiers running after various threat groups has also been reduced.
Again, Sobejana mentioned the timeliness of EO 70. “We are addressing all threats, even the pandemic in a very holistic manner, so like what I said, all agencies of the government and even the community, have respective roles in addressing the threat and preventing the spread of COVID-19,” he said.
While EO 70 and the task force it created do not sit well with most government critics, Sobejana has a way of discussing it without making anyone feel agitated.
Perhaps, his mild, soft-spoken manner helps and also because Sobejana is among the prominent officers who have managed to avoid getting into controversies throughout their military career.
Asked about this, he said that he has always focused on simply doing his job.
“I focus on the core function. Kung ano ang trabaho na binigay sa akin, gagampanan ko to the best of my ability (Whatever job is given to me, I will do it to the best of my ability). I will not go beyond the mandate given to me. And I have to talk within my authority. I will not be talking on things that I don’t have authority over,” Sobejana said.
Sobejana is the second Valor awardee, after retired General Arturo Ortiz, to be appointed Army commanding general. The Valor award is the highest military combat award to be given to a Filipino soldier, when he goes beyond the call of duty, often making the ultimate sacrifice.
Sobejana was a young Scout Ranger captain when he and his men encountered Abu Sayyaf bandits in the jungles of Basilan in 1995. A fierce gunfight with the Abu Sayyaf, then still led by the late Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, left Sobejana with a nearly severed right arm.
But he still continued to fight, firing his rifle with his left hand. He also bit his right thumb to keep his arm from falling off.
Sobejana received extensive medical treatment to mend and rehabilitate his right arm. This allowed him to continue his military service.
Sobejana said the Medal of Valor does not make him any different from or more special than other soldiers.
“We are all public servants, but what seems to me though is there might be higher expectations [from] a Medal of Valor Awardee. But as far as public service is concerned, we are all expected to do our best effort to better serve the public,” he said.
Sobejana, nonetheless, also hopes to receive the public’s “support and cooperation.”
“Security, I should say, is a shared responsibility. Everybody has to take part,” he said.
Sobejana believes in having a “responsive and realistic information operation.”
“We in the armed forces…we have issued firearms to kill the armed component of the security problem. But if you understand the dynamics of peace and conflict… most of them are not within the purview of the military and police to solve,” he said.
Sobejana said the civilian government has more power and influence to get communities to band together against terrorists and insurgents. He said 70% of solving insurgency and terrorism involves non-military action, requiring “operations other than war.”
As of writing, Sobejana is still the commander of the Westmincom until President Duterte appoints his replacement. (READ: Q and A: Is General Sobejana the one to end the Abu Sayyaf?)
As both Army chief and a unified command head, Sobejana straddles the role of force provider and force employer, respectively. One makes sure the other would be operationally capable in the field.
It is understandable, with such a load on his shoulders, that in whatever quiet moment he could catch these days, Sobejana would ponder on what he would do after he retires.
He said he was thinking of going back to Israel and enumerated the places he would want to visit again like Mt Sinai, Mt Tabor, and the Sea of Galilee, among others.
Warriors look for serenity, too.
“It’s very beautiful, it gives a different feeling," Sobejana said. "Doesn’t it make you happy, that when you hear these places mentioned in the Gospel, you have seen these places, too?” – Rappler.com