Hacienda Luisita commander is contender for AFP chief, too

MANILA, Philippines – The Army battalion commander during the 2004 bloody clashes with Hacienda Luisita workers is now a 3-star general and among the contenders to become the next chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

As he joins the race for the coveted post, Lieutenant General Ricardo Visaya, a bemedalled officer and combatant, is haunted by the operation that had gone wrong. (READ: New AFP chief on Friday: Aquino, Gazmin ex-aides contenders)

 

But it's the same operation that could be his ticket to the top post in the military.

It was in 2004 when he got to know his current commander-in-chief, President Benigno Aquino III. At the time of the strike, Aquino, then Tarlac representative, was said to have also acted as the manager of the family estate.

Visaya was then commander of the 69th Infantry Battalion based in Central Luzon. He was on the ground with his men, according to Cristina Palabay of Karapatan, the rights group that has blamed Aquino and Visaya for the death of 7 workers.

It was there that Aquino got to know the general.

Aquino and Visaya eventually faced murder charges before the Office of the Ombudsman, although the cases have since been dismissed.

Beyond Hacienda Luisita, Visaya also proved to be an effective counter-insurgency commander. He was closely associated with his superior at the time, the now detained Major General Jovito Palparan, who was 7th Infantry Division chief in charge of Army units in Central Luzon. Palparan faces various charges of human rights violations allegedly committed under the Arroyo government.

Respected in the military

While Visaya is controversial among leftists and human rights groups, the general is widely respected in the military.

The Scouth Ranger is now the chief of the Southern Luzon Command (Solcom).

His recent promotion to the 3-star position encouraged his supporters to lobby for his appointment as chief of staff.

His two closest rivals in the race, Army chief Lieutenant General Hernando Iriberri and Air Force chief Lieutenant General Jeffrey Delgado, are both reaching the mandatory retirement age of 56 at the height of the campaign period for the May 2016 elections.

Delgado will turn 56 in March 2016; Iriberri, in April 2016.

A 1983 graduate of the Philippine Military Academy, Visaya is retiring in December 2016 yet – way past the inaguration of a new president. This is one reason young officers are pushing for him.

Iriberri's strongest backer, however, is Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who has vetted all chiefs of staff named by Aquino since he became president and is Aquino's most influential adviser on military affairs.

Delgado is a former aide of Aquino's mother, the late President Corazon Aquino.

Aquino can choose to extend the term of the chief of staff up to when he steps down in June 2016.

Should he name Irriberi as AFP boss, this would make Visaya the strongest contender to replace Iriberri as Army commanding general.

The President is expected to make his choice on Thursday, July 9.

The turnover ceremony will be on Friday, July 10, at Camp Aguinaldo. – Rappler.com