Philippine Army

Western Mindanao military chief Corleto Vinluan Jr: Forged in fire from Marawi to Sulu

Carmela Fonbuena

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Western Mindanao military chief Corleto Vinluan Jr: Forged in fire from Marawi to Sulu

Photo by Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

Carmela Fonbuena

He has made himself a sworn enemy of the Abu Sayyaf Group, which launched twin blasts on the same day that Congress confirmed his promotion to the Western Mindanao Command

New Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) chief Lieutenant General Corleto “Corly” Vinluan Jr earned his first star in the middle of a raging battlefield. While his troops were exchanging heavy gunfire with militants in Marawi during the siege of the city in September 2017, he was promoted commander of the elite Light Reaction Regiment (LRR) in a hastily prepared ceremony in an empty lot.

The Marawi siege was the fire that forged Vinluan’s military career. He was commander of Joint Task Group Vector, led by highly-skilled LRR troops who moved with stealth against Muslim terrorists in a 5-month urban battle that ruined Mindanao’s Islamic city.

Vinluan said Marawi was the toughest assignment he’s had to face as a commander, but it also allowed him to show the stuff he’s made of.

Nakita ng lahat, pati ng kasama kong leaders, ang trabaho namin doon. Nandoon din sina SND, NSA, at ang buong leadership ng AFP. Nakikita nila kami (Everybody saw, including my fellow task group leaders, how we worked. The Secretary of National Defense, the National Security Adviser, and the entire leadership of the Armed Forces of the Philippines were all watching us),” Vinluan told Rappler in a phone interview on Sunday, August 23.

Like most members of elite fighting units, Vinluan has shunned publicity, letting his track record and reputation speak for him. When he does talk to reporters, he’s straightforward in acknowledging the challenges his troops face and the strength of the enemy.

Marawi, for example, demanded mental stamina, because the mission to end the siege required reaching targets and managing deadlines while ensuring his men remained alive.  

This made him ripe for Sulu, bailiwick of the Abu Sayyaf and other ISIS-inspired terror networks, where he made history as the first commander of the 11th Infantry Division, formed only in July 2019 in the wake of suicide bombings in the region. The position earned him his second star.

“They knew I was the most qualified and most prepared for Sulu,” Vinluan said. 

Bombs welcome the chief

And it’s now beyond Sulu.

On Monday, August 24, lawmakers confirmed his appointment as Westmincom chief. On the same day, Sulu erupted in two explosions that have killed at least 14 and wounded 75.  

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14 people killed, 75 wounded as twin blasts hit Jolo town center

14 people killed, 75 wounded as twin blasts hit Jolo town center

“My experience as Task Group commander in Marawi and commander in the most challenging province prepared me psychologically and mentally to handle crises and most difficult tasks,” he said. 

Vinluan was sworn in to his new post on August 18 at the Camp General Navarro in Zamboanga City in a ceremony where attendees wore face masks and practiced physical distancing. Coronavirus infections have been rising in some parts of Western Mindanao. Local government units and the police have been leading the fight against the pandemic while the military has kept its focus on the local terrorist groups that seem undeterred by the virus.   

He is undeterred, too, by the challenge that the terrorists threw him on Monday. Vinluan said the same Abu Sayyaf faction responsible for the deadly Jolo Cathedral blast in January 2019 was behind the new attacks. 

As Westmincom chief, defeating the Abu Sayyaf Group will remain his key goal. “Our priority will really be Sulu. The number of the Abu Sayyaf Group there has dwindled. We have started development projects and livelihood projects especially in Patikul [where the group’s overall leader Radullon Sahiron operates],” said Vinluan. 

Mindanao veteran

Vinluan belongs to the Philippine Military Academy “Maringal” Class of  1988. He spent his early years in the military with the Scout Ranger Regiment, where he rose in the ranks from being a platoon leader to commander of the 7th Scout Ranger Company.

He recalled his years as junior officer in Central Mindanao and the “Triple SB complex” in Zamboanga del Norte. “At this early stage of my career, I had seen how the army faced multi-faceted challenges that need to be addressed, both for the welfare of our soldiers, and more importantly, for the people in these areas,” he said at his assumption ceremony. 

He operated with elite units throughout most of his career. Before he took the helm of the LRR, he was the commander of the Joint Special Operations Group (JSOG). The mobile strike force unit based in Camp Aguinaldo gathered different elite units of the army, navy, and air force for highly specialized operations against different high-value threats around the country. 

His succeeding assignments in Marawi and Sulu have made him one of the most battle-tested generals in the Philippine military today.

All too often, however, the concern about generals like him is they are too focused on scoring combat accomplishments and have little appreciation of peaceful measures to resolve conflicts.

Man of peace?

Vinluan said he isn’t the type. He said he has shown in Sulu his commitment to do the hard work with communities and local stakeholders to achieve a more lasting peace. 

Gone are the days when his daily preoccupation was how to take down high-value targets. In Sulu, he engaged with local chief executives to court their support in defeating the Abu Sayyaf Group. He also dealt with the leaders of the two factions of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the former rebel group operating on the island, to make sure that their rivalry doesn’t explode into violence.

Mas madali noon kasi ‘yung terorista lang ang iisipin ko. Patayan lang naman talaga ‘yun. Iba na ngayon (It was easier when we were only running after terrorists. The mission was straightforward. We had to eliminate the threat. It’s different now),” he said.

“You have to show the local chief executives that you respect their authorities as governor or mayor. On the MNLF side, you have to understand also their own predicaments and concerns,” he said.

Like many Sulu commanders before him, Vinluan fell in love with the battle-weary island and harbored hopes that he would be the one to end the Abu Sayyaf.

He spoke of “the very nice people of Sulu who became my close friends” and the “awe-inspiring Tausug culture and the beautiful sceneries in the islands of the province.”

Over the last year, he oversaw combat operations in Sulu that killed Abu Sayyaf bandits, foreign terrorists, and suicide bombers. Kidnap victims were also rescued, including British national Allan Hayron and his Filipino wife Wilma.  

“It is not only in fighting wars that we find the spirit of being a soldier…. Over the decades, the civilian population has had a perspective [of distrust over] what the military does. We must invest more [in our relationships with] the people so as to create a community completely free from peace and security problems,” he said in his assumption speech.

As Westmincom chief, Sulu is now just one of the areas he’s watching over – aside from Basilan, Tawi-Tawi, the Zamboanga provinces, and Central Mindanao.

And Marawi will always be close to his heart. “I am personally elated that as commander of Westmincom, I will again have the privilege to visit that historic place during its recovery period, seeing faces of people who are no longer afraid but hopeful of a brighter future,” he said in his speech. 

He said he wishes for the speedy rehabilitation of the battleground, where residents have yet to return three years since the battles. Task Force Bangon Marawi is looking at the completion of rehabilitation by December 2021 yet. 

Beyond the Abu Sayyaf Group in Sulu, he needs to sustain efforts to defeat other local militant groups such as the BIFF in Maguindanao and the communist rebels operating in other parts of his area of responsibility. 

Seeking out the MILF

He will also continue dialogues with neighboring countries, particularly Indonesia and Malaysia, in securing common maritime boundaries against terrorism and other forms of transnational crimes. 

Vinluan understands that protecting peace agreements with former rebel groups Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the MNLF are also among his biggest responsibilities. 

He is the first Westmincom chief in recent history who did not come from the 6th Infantry Division in Central Mindanao, a position that would have bonded him with the MILF, which now leads the new Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) based in Cotabato City.

Vinluan is more familiar with the MNLF due to his assignment in Sulu. He has met BARMM chief minister Ahod Ebrahim only once and several ministers on a few occasions, but he vowed to develop a good working relationship with the MILF.

Vinluan knows a relationship with the MILF is critical to his success. He will need to work with the former rebel group to implement development projects in BARMM areas, meet deadlines for the decommissioning of MILF combatants, and address the BIFF threat. 

There are also too many security complications on the ground that require close cooperation between the military and the MILF, he said. They need to work together to address infightings among MILF members over land issues which can erupt into rido or clan war and to deter recruitment of potential suicide bombers in the communities. 

Threatening the gains

But Vinluan takes command of Westmincom as new security dynamics also take shape in the country.

President Rodrigo Duterte signed in July 2020 the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, a new measure that has prompted fears of potential human rights abuses. Executive Order 70, signed earlier in December 2018, created a task force to address causes of armed conflict with communists at the local level. 

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Vinluan sought to assuage the fears. “We will always abide by the rule of law, IHL (international humanitarian law), and HR (human rights),” he said. 

So much has improved from the ’90s when Vinluan was a young Scout Ranger officer running around the region as he hunted down militants, including the MILF. He never imagined that the rebel group would one day become the military’s key ally. 

But new and evolving challenges, including those from the Islamic State-linked groups, threaten the gains.

There’s a simple yardstick by which the success of any commander can be assessed. By the end of his term, he should leave his command in a better place than when he started.

Sige, bantayan niyo ako dito (All right, watch what we do here),” Vinluan declared. –

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