Philippine military

General Gilbert Gapay: Too short a term for immense tasks

Nikko Dizon

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General Gilbert Gapay: Too short a term for immense tasks

IMMENSE TASKS. Armed Forces chief General Gilbert I. Gapay on Sunday, Nov 1, 2020.

Photo by Darren Langit/Rappler

In his remaining 3 months as armed forces chief, the general wants to show Filipinos that the military is not their enemy

On General Gilbert Gapay’s 3rd month as chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in November, the following happened: Top Abu Sayyaf and New People’s Army (NPA) leaders were killed; a ranking military general wrangled with celebrities on social media then made peace with one of them; 3 ferocious typhoons lashed at the country; the Philippines’ Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) with the US was extended; and a pandemic raged on. 

It was as if the universe was making the most out of Gapay’s 6-month term as military chief, which will end in February next year.

Gapay is the 9th military chief since Rodrigo Duterte became president and commander-in-chief in June 2016 – the most by any 6-year president since the rebirth of democracy in 1986. Former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo had 11 chiefs of staff, but she was president for 9 years. (READ: Quickie generals: The military’s revolving door needs to be shut)

Before he assumed office last August 3, Gapay said he had thought of the things he had to do given the little time he has as chief of staff. He was guided by one thing: the command of the AFP to protect and serve the people and defend the state. 

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“It’s managing the force and setting our priorities straight and allocating resources, all of these geared towards meeting the expectations of the people,” Gapay told Rappler in an interview in late October. 

Malaki ang expectations nila from the armed forces especially in times like these, not only in security matters but in really containing the pandemic. That’s why we were very visible conducting check point operations and lately assisting in the medical field. We have to recruit additional medical personnel to beef up our capacity in containing the pandemic. So, all of these put together is what preoccupies the Armed Forces,” he added.

Gapay said division of labor is essential, assigning units to perform internal security missions and having units dedicated to external defense, particularly in the Navy and Air Force.

If only the AFP does not have to grapple these days with a love-hate relationship with the public it serves. 

It is strange how Filipinos would rely on soldiers when there are natural calamities, but are wary of the armed forces’ role during a pandemic lockdown, aggravated by the caustic manner of its one-man propaganda machine, Southern Luzon Command (SolCom) commander, Lieutenant General Antonio Parlade.

It’s relatively peaceful now between the military and the public, especially on social media, most likely because everybody is still recovering from the aftermath of the typhoons. Hopefully, the ceasefire holds.

Short term for immense tasks

Gapay’s term is too short, his tasks too immense, for him to expend energy being a referee in a social media brawl.

Already, the controversies over social media and the anti-terrorism law that met Gapay in August overshadowed an important credential: his training in chemical, biological, radioactive, and nuclear (CBRN) security from the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission. 

One of his senior officers told Rappler that with a CBRN security training, Gapay knows how to respond immediately to an outbreak. Mandated – and trained – to protect the people and defend the state, soldiers should be the last ones to be felled by the invisible enemy. The military, Gapay said, is “enhancing [its] biosafety and health protocols and other measures to really preserve the force.”

When the pandemic hit the Philippines early this year, Gapay, then the Army chief, swiftly had a coronavirus laboratory built so that soldiers could be tested for COVID-19. The Army also recruited more medical personnel. Gapay stressed the need to look into the mental health of the soldiers and AFP personnel.

“We should be the last ones standing here that’s why we have to protect the force. One way is to have our own testing capacity,” Gapay said. The service commands and V. Luna Hospital are now equipped with their own RT-PCR testing capability.

To date, the AFP has lost more than 30 officers and men to the virus. It’s a “minimal and acceptable level,” Gapay said, without diminishing the loss of lives. 

Gapay recognizes that COVID-19 could be used as a biological weapon in future wars. Under his leadership, the AFP is revisiting and reworking its CBRN doctrines, tactics, and procedures in combating and addressing pandemics. It is also adjusting some operational and organizational guidelines and workflows. 

“There are many lessons that could be learned here. The threat of pandemics has always been there, in our intelligence assessments. But before, the capacity building was focused on military capabilities per se. But right now, we are now including…capabilities that could address pandemics and other similar threats in the future,” Gapay said.

Top of class

A native of La Paz, Tarlac, Gapay graduated top of his Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class of 1986, receiving 13 medals on graduation day. He should have been a member of PMA ’85, he recalled, but was sent back home for being underaged by 10 months. Gapay completed high school at the Ateneo de Manila University at age 16. While waiting for the right time to enter the academy, he spent a year at the BS Management Honors class in Ateneo.

Gapay is known in the military for his scholastic achievements, and for being “bright” and articulate. He was relatively low-key even as he went up the ladder in the AFP leadership. 

He was with the team of officers and men under retired general Emmanuel Bautista, the 44th military chief, that crafted the Bayanihan whole-of-nation approach in addressing the communist insurgency. Bayanihan is the AFP’s internal peace and security plan which recognizes that armed struggle cannot be solved by military action alone. 

It was the military’s counterinsurgency program during the Aquino administration that was carried over in the present dispensation – although in a more aggressive and noisy manner.

Gapay told Rappler that the NPA’s armed capability – manpower and firearms – is “on a decline” and “weakened” to a point that, he confidently thinks, the insurgency would end soon. It’s a statement that has been said by his predecessors as well.

Duterte’s marching orders to Gapay and all other ranking military leaders: end Asia’s longest-running communist insurgency before he steps down in 2022, something that previous presidents and commanders-in-chief had also asked for. 

Completely ending the armed struggle remains elusive, but Gapay said the military has intensified its operations and adopted a “paradigm shift from enemy-centric to people-centric, from military to developmental strategy to address, really, the root causes of the problem.” In truth, that was the paradigm of the armed forces under the Cory Aquino and Ramos administrations. (READ: War with the NPA, war without end)

“In a military approach, when you kill an NPA, it is a minus-plus because the slain fighter has brothers, cousins [who will join the armed movement as a form of revenge]. When the approach is people-centric, once one fighter surrenders, 3 more would follow. It becomes a minus-minus. We find the new paradigm and strategy which we are adopting very effective in accelerating the decline and the defeat of the NPAs,” he explained in a mix of English and Filipino. 

Gapay is also banking on the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, which, like the Bayanihan concept he helped craft, approaches insurgency “as a multi-dimensional problem with a multi-dimensional response.”

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“We have realized that the military is just maybe 1/5 of the solution. The bulk of it rests in the other agencies,” Gapay said. 

Gapay said the Bayanihan concept was “re-engineered,” where LGUs and government agencies are part of teams immersing themselves in communities. “It’s a mini-whole of nation approach with composite teams for every community,” Gapay explained.

But it is also this gung-ho attitude of the military to end the communist insurgency that brought the AFP head-to-head with the public recently. For one, people strongly disapproved of some government officials’ red-tagging of individuals.  

Digital battleground

The AFP chief of staff conceded that the battleground between the military and communist insurgents has gone digital. The quarantine has been “capitalized on by the CPP-NPA, too,” Gapay said, to the point that their supporters have held virtual rallies.

To this end, the military responds by using social media and other vehicles for information dissemination as well, to let people know what the armed forces is doing against the insurgents. “Social media has been always a very good platform for us for more reach,” Gapay said. He’s on Facebook himself.

The AFP’s social media content includes programs “shielding the youth from recruitment and other bad things,” Gapay added. The AFP’s Civil Relations Service (CRS) unit have put together an Information Development Group focused on producing social media content – but Facebook shut down some accounts associated with CRS officers.

Gapay described the military’s social media debacles as a “spice of life.”

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“It’s not always smooth sailing when it comes to social media. Sometimes we say ‘damn if you do, damn if you don’t,’ wala na tayong nagagawang tama (We can’t do anything right),” he said. 

Gapay said the military is now updating its social media rules that were first implemented in 2016 and which initially focused on reminding soldiers not to post anything that would compromise military operations and other confidential information.

“Right now, we are updating the policies, focusing, aside from security, on the accuracy of the information we are uploading, propriety, and consistency with AFP policies,” he said. 

Days after his assumption as military chief, Gapay was quoted as saying social media should be regulated under the anti-terrorism law, a contentious measure as it is. He later clarified that what he meant was regulating social media platforms and not social media use. 

But the online war between Parlade and social media users persisted. “There are times when Jun Parlade would use words that are abrasive and [which brought] more harm than good so we cautioned him before,” Gapay said. Still, he recognized the “effectiveness of Jun Parlade” in the propaganda war.  

“’Pag nagagalit and nagre-react sila [CPP-NPA], it is a sign that we get our message across and nasasaktan na rin sila. Doon mo naman makikita ang effectiveness ni Jun Parlade. ‘Di ba, pag medyo nairita na ang kabila, okay na rin naman ‘yun kasi sometimes if you use kind words, parang wala lang, they will just brush it off, but kung medyo offensive ang dating, ayun medyo nagre-react sila, effective. But we see to it that we do not go out of bounds, that Jun Parlade will not go out of bounds, will not violate any law or regulations,” Gapay said. 

He also emphasized that it is the military’s “job to remind and advise the general public on the risk that they might end up in the mountains bearing arms.”

“We are a democratic country and you are free to say and express what you want. But when you start taking up arms against the government and resorting to violence when advancing your cause, ibang usapan na ‘yan. So ito naman ang reminder ni General Parlade with his recent issue with the celebrities,” Gapay said.  

Terror in Jolo

Gapay managed to recover from his controversial statement about social media regulation when the public saw a firm and articulate military chief seeking justice for his slain men. 

When Gapay appeared at the Senate hearing on the slaughter of 4 Army intelligence officers in Jolo, Sulu last June, he impressed many when he called out the incredible details in the police investigation report and threw caution to the wind when he gave hints that the military knew exactly who was behind the killing of his men. 

“I was not saddened, I was enraged by that incident,” Gapay said, referring to the deaths of the intel operatives.

“I had an idea of the inside story. It was totally different from the spot report of the PNP, which I found misleading, fabricated, and ‘yung kuwento dun fantastic, parang sine (fantastic, like a movie). Kaya (That’s why) I told the division commander to stand down and control the troops, because medyo mainit na sa area and luckily wala naman insidente (there was already tension in the area and luckily there was no incident).”

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What infuriated Gapay more was that the killings sabotaged the military’s counterterrorism efforts. A new face of terrorism is emerging – female suicide bombers. Rappler’s sources had predicted this late last year and it became real in the recent bombings in Mindanao.

“We have received reports that they find it easier to recruit women and somehow they found the two widow suicide bombers as parang na-idolize pa ng iba (worth idolizing by others) because of their bravery and their willingness to offer their lives. [They want to avenge] the deaths of their husbands. They have been pushed to radical extremism already. So ito ngayon ang binabantayan namin (So this is what we are watching now),” Gapay said. 

Even in a pandemic, Gapay said, “there is a clear and present threat of terrorism.” 

Looking back at how 2020 began for the Philippines – the eruption of Taal volcano – Gapay said that the military has had its hands full the entire year, and he was proud of the work they have done. “We are able to carry out our mandate and our mission to the best of our ability,” he said.

He will hang his uniform on February 4, when he turns 56, the mandatory retirement age in the military. He can only hope it will be a better year for a nation that he and his troops have sworn to protect. –

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Nikko Dizon

Nikko Dizon is a freelance journalist specializing in security and political reporting. She has extensively covered issues involving the military, the West Philippine Sea maritime dispute, human rights, and the peace process.