Southcom to be divided into east and west commands

Pres. Arroyo said Senga recommended the division of the Zamboanga City-based Southcom “for more effective troop management and control.” She said she approved the recommendation “without second thought.”

“We will revive the office handling civil military operations, as has already been mentioned by your new chief-of-staff. And he said there will be a new division in the Davao area. But we will go beyond that, we will divide the southern command into two unified commands for more effective troop management and control,” she said.

At present, Southcom has control over the Army, Air and Naval forces stationed in Mindanao with an air base also in Zamboanga City.

Esperon told MindaNews in a telephone interview Sunday morning that the eastern command will focus on the communist guerrillas while the western command will focus on the security of the island provinces and the borders with Indonesia and Malaysia to prevent the entry of “terror groups” into Mindanao. The island provinces in the west of Mindanao are Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-tawi.

He acknowledged the division should be done “as soon as possible.”

The name and the base of the new command have yet to be finalized, too. “We are still looking at appropriate location which will be able to control in terms of appreciation and location, control through communication, to put in tandem with what’s on the ground.”

He noted that while Southcom chief Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon “knows Mindanao by his thumb, tactical situations can change” that would require quicker responses.

But Esperon said there will be no building of a new military base. “We do not have to have a new base. We will improve the existing ones.”

The two commands, Esperon said, may be referred to as EastMinCom for Eastern Mindanao Command and WesMinCom for Western Mindanao Command or SouthCom will retain its name for the western command and the eastern command will be named simply Eastern Command.

Which of the 25 provinces and 27 cities of Mindanao will fall under the eastern or western command is still being studied, Esperon said.

But he said they’re eyeing the eastern command to include the General Santos-Davao-Surigao areas. “We’re still studying well the delineations,” he said, adding they are still studying, too, where to put the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

In its report to the Committee of the Eight of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which signed a peace agreement with the government on September 2, 1996 and holds an observer status in the OIC, complained, among other issues, that the provision of the peace agreement on the creation of a regional security force was not implemented. It explained that MNLF forces were to be initially “organized into separate units within the transition period” under a deputy commander of the Southcom and that the integrees were not supposed to have been deployed in combat duty against their fellow Moro.

In its report to the same committee, the Philippine government said the security forces in the ARMM “were presently constituted of the Philippine National Police (PNP) and the MNLF units integrated into the PNP, which numbered around 1500 integrees as part of Phase I.”

Esperon said the division of Southcom, which his predecessor recommended, has been the subject of conferences and plans and has local support.

Southcom, a legacy from the Marcos era, has had 28 chiefs since 1972, with Maj. Gen. Gabriel Habacon as the 28th.

Habacon is the ninth Southcom chief appointed by President Arroyo since she assumed the presidency in January 2001.

Over the years, the Southcom post has been a much-coveted designation, a stepping stone for generals to be Army chiefs, Chiefs of Staff or ambassadors.

Of the 28 Southcom chiefs since 1972, two were appointed by then President Ferdinand Marcos: Rear Admiral Romulo Espaldon who served for 8 years and Maj. Gen. Delfin Castro who served for five years until the 1986 People Power.

During their terms as president, Corazon Aquino appointed six Southcom chiefs, Fidel Ramos appointed eight and Joseph Estrada, who was ousted on his 31st month in office (instead of 72 months) appointed three.

Esperon did not follow the route taken by the Arroyo-appointed predecessors Senga and Gen. Narciso Abaya who rose from Southcom to Army Chief to Armed Forces Chief of Staff.  He served as commander of the Presidential Group and commanded the elite Special Operations Command.

But Esperon’s Mindanao assignments included serving as Southcom spokesperson, brigade commander in Basilan and in Carmen, North Cotabato, He supervised and monitored the 2000 “all-out war” against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front from Fort Pikit in Pikit, North Cotabato, focusing on “capturing” the MILF’s Camp Rajah Muda.

In her speech at Friday’s turnover of command, President Arroyo referred to Esperon as “hero of Rajah Muda.”

“If we had Angie Reyes (Angelo Reyes who rose from Southcom chief to Army chief to Chief of Staff to Defense Secretary, to Local Governments Secretary and now Environment Secretary) as hero of [Camp] Abubakar, if we had Roy Cimatu as the hero of Camp Busra, if we had Gene Senga as the hero of Buliok. We have Jun Esperon as the hero of Rajah Mudah,” Arroyo said. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)