In his all-out war against the Reds, this General claims…
…conscience is the least of his concerns
By Fe Zamora
Last updated 07:18am (Mla time) 07/02/2006
Published on page Q1 of the July 2, 2006 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer
HIS head is the first thing one notices about Major Gen. Jovito Palparan. It's small and round like a sineguelas fruit, with ears jutting out like teacup handles. With his crewcut and cheery mien, Palparan looks more like a scout master herding a group of playful youngsters on their first bivouac. Instead, on this sweltering May afternoon in Bgy. Sampaloc, San Rafael, Bulacan, the commanding general of the 7th Infantry Division, is speaking in this "peace rally" organized by the military. Surveying the crowd, Palparan starts his speech soberly: "Sabi nila, mamatay-tao ako (people say I'm a killer)." Breaking slowly into a grin, he continues: "Hindi naman lahat aking pinapatay (But I don't kill everyone)."
The menfolk break into nervous laughter, the women crane their necks for a better view of the speaker. Palparan pauses to savor the moment. "What will we get if we make you suffer?" he continues, teasing the crowd in Filipino. "I don't want to go through life hated by so many people. As soldiers, we are here to help because that is our duty, that is our happiness."
Earlier in the day, some 500 barangay officials as well as alleged members and sympathizers of the communist New People's Army (NPA) members had a seminar on how to defend their communities from NPA intrusion. One after the other, the barangay captains mounted the stage and unfurled an orange cartolina scribbled with answers to several questions posed by the military. "What is the situation in your barangay before the soldiers came? Were there communists present? Why/how did they get there? What did you do to get rid of the communists? What will you do to keep them away?" the questions read.
One barangay captain who had difficulty explaining the situation in his NPA-infested village got a sharp reprimand from the moderator, a military-looking man wearing a vest and who spoke crunchy Filipino. "Don't call them people. Call them NPA, criminals, terrorists," the moderator said gruffly.
"What to do if they refuse to leave?" he prompted, before answering his own question. "Kill them then…" he said, voice booming across the open gymnasium of the Carlos Gonzales High School "Perhaps if we have weapons…" the barangay captain suggested tentatively, twisting his lean body towards the moderator.
"Wala ba kayong mga itak (But don't you have machetes)?," the moderator replied. "Dead men cannot complain anymore. Remember what General Palparan said last night?" The men nodded in approval.
Never has killing and death been spoken of so blithely than on this afternoon of counter-insurgency talk. "Kung hindi aakyat sa stage, tigok! (Come up the stage, or you're dead)," the emcee joked as he called on an ex-NPA member to denounce his former comrades. The crowd tittered nervously, and with good reason. Palparan has vowed to cleanse Bulacan—and Central Luzon, for that matter—of NPAs before his 56th birthday on September 11, a birthdate he shares with deposed strongman Ferdinand Marcos.
"They surrender, they evacuate, they disappear, they die, I don't care what happens to them. What's important is that they are no longer here," Palparan declares.
Though delivered light-heartedly, Palparan's statement should not be taken lightly. Of the more than 600 extrajudicial killings of militants, peasants, fisherfolk, students and human rights advocates reported since 2001, almost 500 have been blamed by militants on Palparan, whom they have tagged "the butcher of Mindoro and Eastern Visayas," where he was assigned from 2001 to 2005.
Militant groups have described the general as shameless and "thick-faced" for masterminding the deaths of hapless farmers and fisherfolk, the same people, they say, who toil hard so that the likes of Palparan, President Arroyo and the rest of the country, can have food on their table.
"Palparan is not only arrogant, he is also psychotic," says Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas (KMP) Secretary General Danilo Ramos. But Palparan merely scoffs at the accusations.
"(The killings are) being attributed to me, but I did not kill them. I just inspired (the triggermen)," he chuckles. "We are not admitting responsibility here, what I'm saying is that these are necessary incidents."
In the week following President Arroyo's declaration of total war against communist insurgents, Justice Secretary Raul Gonzalez has said as much, dismissing the loss of innocent lives as "collateral damage." Palparan does him one better. "There are no innocent victims," he says. "These people are suspected of having done wrong in the community." He then gave a litany of how the NPAs meted so-called revolutionary justice on villagers suspected of playing footsie with the military.
"The victims (of NPA justice) have families, they have relatives. If the threat comes to them to a point when they have to take action, then maybe they should. They are only defending themselves," he adds.
Palparan similarly shrugs off charges of human rights abuses leveled against him. "Wala akong hang-up dyan. (I have no hang-ups about that). We are fighting a movement that is violent. More violence will come to us if we just allow them to do what they want," he says.
He rues as well the lack of troops fielded against the enemy, and how some soldiers lack motivation in pursuing the target. "If I were the chief of staff, I'd take control over resources. Those who don't work will get relieved, as simple as that. What's important is for them to do the job. Do everything you can to clear the area. It's all up to you."
A fellow officer who has worked with Palparan says the general is actually giving people a choice. "The choice is simple: who would these people rather have as foes: the military or the NPA?"
Palparan may have been described by his detractors as a soldier of death, but he is no phenomenon in the Philippine countryside where poverty rules and the wealthy govern. The disparity between the impoverished majority and the wealthy few has provided a natural fertile ground for insurgency in Central Luzon where Col. Napoleon Valeriano and the "skull squadrons" hunted the Huks in the '50s. The '70s and the '80s produced other notorious personalities, among them Col. Carlos Lademora with the Lost Command, who sowed terror in Samar and later in Mindanao, and Lt. Col. Rodolfo Aguinaldo, the self-styled rebel hunter who, in the North, had been known to torture his prey.
Palparan joined the Armed Forces just as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) launched its secessionist war in Mindanao in 1974. Unlike the Huks who were into guerilla hit-and-run tactics, the MNLF favored conventional warfare, firing rockets at the government troops in battles that often lasted from dusk till dawn. Palparan was shipped off to Jolo, the heartland of the Moro secessionist movement. He was with the 24th Infantry Batallion, which has been described by a retired Army general as a unit geared for "shock action" against the MNLF.
"That unit was a virtual killing machine: we had to caution them to slow down," the retired official said. Palparan describes it as "a kill-or-be-killed situation." He said the fighting was so fierce that he lost 40 men during a month-long battle in 1979. The 500-strong battalion would lose over 200 troops in the manhunt for Usman Sali, the leader of the group that massacred Brig. Gen. Teodulo Bautista and 34 soldiers and men on October 10, 1977.
"So I became company commander and operations officer at the same time because no other officer would report to the unit," Palparan recalls.
The battalion commander then was Col. Jose Dado, while the brigade commander was Brig. Gen. Rodolfo Canieso, a tough-talking soldier who became a legend in Mindanao as "kan-yonieso," mainly because his preferred weapon of engagement was the cannon. According to lore, Canieso never balked at raining cannons upon enemy positions. He was reportedly as eager to fire cannons at troops who hesitated to attack the enemy, making sure that the cannons landed on the soldiers' asses, thereby jolting them to move forward.
Still, in any armed conflict, it is the civilians who suffer the most, acknowledges Palparan during the interview in Bulacan. Women and children become natural victims "because they don't know where to run, how to hide," he says. The worse part was that in Sulu, battle-weary soldiers saw the Tausug children as "future enemies, so the thinking was to finish them off while they were still young," Palparan reveals.
But it was a "convincing victory" that the 24th IB achieved in Patikul some 26 years ago, the general crows. "We finished off the MNLF—at least in Patikul—until Butz Aquino revived it by bringing Nur Misuari back in 1986."
The 24th IB would be moved to Central Luzon in the early '80s to fight the NPAs. Palparan would also join the unit, and by 1989, would assume the post as battalion commander, which he held until 1991. His list of human rights violations reportedly started about this time, with him scoring at least seven incidents of salvagings, five incidents of harassment, five incidents of illegal arrest and detention, two incidents of grenade bombing, and one incident each of massacre and aerial assault, according to the militants' report on Palparan's human rights record.
The controversial officer also claims "convincing victory" in Naujan, Victoria and Baco, all in Mindoro Oriental, which were among his areas of operation as chief of the 204th Brigade from 2001 to 2003. Another "convincing victory" was in Calbiga, Samar, which he also covered as chief of the 8th Infantry Division from February to June last year. But it's a victory daubed with blood, according to militants, who tally nearly 300 incidents of extra judicial killings. Such a record has earned Palparan the "butcher" tag from several people's organizations.
Despite the reported trail of death and disappearances that follow in his wake, Palparan remains in the good graces of the Arroyo administration. In September 2005, he was assigned to head the 7th ID which has jurisdiction over Pampanga, Tarlac, Zambales, Bataan, Pangasinan, Aurora and Bulacan. By January this year, Bulacan Gov. Josefina dela Cruz started receiving reports about Palparan's alleged human rights abuses.
"I have no quarrel with General Palparan on counter-insurgency, but I cannot quite agree with his methods," says Dela Cruz. She was particularly miffed when Palparan's men began house-to-house searches without even informing the mayor, much less the local police.
"Sabi ba naman, walang mayor-mayor or governor-governor sa amin (He said he doesn't give a damn about mayors or governors)" Dela Cruz says, quoting the report from a local official.
Since then, Dela Cruz has been crossing swords with the controversial general in public. And Palparan has fought back by telling the media that the governor was an NPA supporter. Dela Cruz says Palparan's move was predictable. In fact, she notes, the general has also linked Bulacan Rep. Lorna Silverio to the rebel movement after the legislator held a dialog with the military following the February 1 massacre of five farm workers in San Ildefonso town.
(Palparan and Governor Dela Cruz met last week and agreed to "open lines" on issues involving the conduct and operations of soldiers in Bulacan amid the government's heightened anti-insurgency campaign.--Ed.)
Separate fact-findings conducted by the militant Karapatan and the provincial board pointed to the 24th IB as the culprits. In March, the provincial board passed a resolution urging Palparan to pull out Sgt. Rizal Hilario, a member of the 24th IB, from San Ildefonso, to allow scared witnesses to come out and testify. Palparan had apparently ignored the resolution because Hilario is still maintaining his base in Barangay Pinaod, site of the massacre.
Through all these controversies, Palparan would only shrug his shoulders.
"Hindi pwedeng atrasan dito, tuloy tuloy na ito (There's no going back now; we have to keep going)" he says. In fact, he adds, the military is already behind schedule.
"If only I could assign one soldier to guard every house…" he says wistfully.
If he can't clear Central Luzon of insurgents by September, Palparan says he is hoping that his successors "would do the job so at least I can retire in peace," he says. He definitely doesn't want to end up like Aguinaldo, who was killed by the NPA hit squad in June 2001.
Indeed, Palparan has gone a long way from his humble beginnings in Cagayan de Oro City, where he was born on Sept. 11, 1950. The boy spent his childhood in his father's hometown in Malitnog, Southern Leyte, his high school years back in CDO, and college at the University of the East in Manila where he earned his BS in Business Administration in 1973. He pursued further studies even while in the military, tucking an MA in Management from the Philippine Christian University and an MA in National Security Administration from the National Defense College of the Philippines.
Through all his high-profile war against the NPA, Palparan leads a low-key private life. Details about his family are scanty. "If they see me worried, then they would also worry. They would be reacting to me," he says.
"But I can still go to Divisoria with my wife. She is bigger than me, so she's my security," he laughs.
He continues: "If I pray every morning for God to protect me, He might think I have become nervous. If you are doing right, God will protect you, so I do my job. You do not ask God for things that you can do; you only ask God for things that you cannot do yourself. I'm a practical person that way. I don't want to give the Lord too much burden," Besides, Palparan avers, he has no problem sleeping at night. There are no skeletons walking in his dreams, he says.
"That's being paranoid; time to be confined at Ward 24 and ½," he laughs out loud. "It could also be conscience. But I don't have that," he shrugs