“I’M not used to this kind of fight.”
The words are ironic. They come from a man least expected to say them: Retired Maj. Gen. Alexander F. Balutan, the famed Mandirigma of the Philippine Marines, commander of the main effort in the capture of MILF Camp Abubakar which signaled the final downfall of the Muslim rebellion in 2000, who went all the way up to being the Vice Commander of the Philippine Navy before joining the civilian government in 2016, and whose many battles gallantly fought are testified to by 35 military service medals, 50 plaques of appreciation and recognition, the PMAAA Incorporated Cavalier Award, and The Outstanding Philippine Soldiers (TOPS) Award.
Yet, it was with candor that the former military legend spoke those words. He virtually admitted feeling helpless against the continuing harassment he suffers from all sides of the illegal gambling world. Sandra Cam, a recently appointed member of the board of directors of the Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office (PCSO), alleged bagwoman of Atong Ang, stirred up the hornet’s nest when she went on media exposing what she called lavish Christmas party General Balutan threw for the PCSO employees.
Last Thursday, General Balutan clarified the issues at a roundtable organized by the Manila Times for the paper to get a good view of the controversy. He said nothing was lavish about a party that was meant to boost the morale of 1,500 employees of the PCSO nationwide. For the P6 million spent for the affair, that’s an average of some P4,00 per employee, including food, venue, prizes and giveaways.
General Balutan had earlier disclosed that while expenditures for such an event under past administrations had gone as high as P14 million, this year’s party cost had gone down to even less than half; and while the Commission on Audit had authorized P10 million for spending in last December’s party, he had cut it down further to P6 million.
The defensive stance taken by the general in the face of the Cam exposé was in complete contrast to his aggressive history in the Marines. He didn’t earn that moniker Mandirigma for nothing. The brand actually sprang from his derring-do in many a battle in all of which he displayed brilliance of mind in coming up with unorthodox methods in subduing enemies.
For instance, here is a passage from the book Kauswagan to the Fall of Camp Abubakar by Antonieto D. Ferrer, Commodore AFP: “Back in the seventies, a campaign by the Philippine Army against the MNLF made a frontal attack of Camp Bilal (the first of three camps to be overrun in order to get the main MILF stronghold Camp Abubakar) and failed miserably.” In carrying out President Estrada’s directive of all-out war policy against the MILF, General Balutan drew much from that Philippine Army failure in devising tactics that ran counter to conventional ones. The MILF fighters were well-concealed in trenches and bunkers that guarded the only passage to the objective, from which position they fired at will at the government forces, who in their position in turn could not make any counter fire at all. General Balutan didn’t take that line. Instead he commanded two of his battalions to skirt the apparently one single passage through Camp Bilal, one battalion advancing unnoticed by the enemy by clinging to the ravines on one side in making its advance, the other scaling the hill on the other side similarly unnoticed, with General Balutan’s own battalion staying on the one single highway that ran through the camp, there to push a frontal attack at any given notice. That notice came when in a synchronized movement, the first two battalions got behind the MILF formation and from there fired away, forcing the Muslim fighters to come out of hiding – finally becoming vulnerable for General Balutan’s successful frontal attack.
This example of General Balutan’s bravado in combat relates to the current discussion thus: that a straightforward military officer, steeled in combat and tested in the crucible of sacrifice for saving the nation cannot be cowed easily, but that he appears rather timid in the midst of accusations against him by reputed illegal gambling lords is cause enough for worry. Where has the Mandirigma in General Balutan gone?
“Issues are being decided in the media,” said the general, a tinge of pain in his tone.
During the first joint congressional hearing on the PCSO by the Senate committee on games and amusement chaired by Sen. Panfilo Lacson and the House committees on government corporations and public enterprises and ways and means, General Balutan was visibly caught unawares by the obviously cleverly framed questions by certain members of the committee which appeared to leave him groping for answers. These questions seemed to be, if it were boxing (Senator Manny Pacquiao sat in the committee anyway), amounting to telling jabs that set him up for the final blow, the smear tactics by Atong Ang and his “bagwoman” Sandra Cam.
Having known much about the guy, I felt he could have performed better. Anyway, that was a thought engendered in one who had had a dose of Senate inquiry himself. Sometime in the late 1990s, I and Robbie Tan, executive producer of Seiko Films, became respondents in a Senate inquiry on bold films as prompted by Priscilla Almeda, who claimed to having been exploited in the films she made for the movie outfit, particularly “Exploitation,” which I wrote and directed. We got off the hook, Robbie having gotten a high-end public relations outfit to do the trick. That was a revelation to me indeed, and it was in light of that development that I recalled a statement by the late Sen. Miriam Defensor Santiago to this effect: “Kung senador ka at hindi ka kumikita ng isang milyun araw-araw, bobo kang senador (If you are a senator and you do not earn one million every day, you are a no-brain senator).” I don’t suppose anyone of the Senate committee members who conducted the hearing on the PCSO would admit to being “bobo.”
At the roundtable session last Thursday, Mr. Dante Francis A. Ang 2nd, the Times CEO, asked if General Balutan had any ax to grind with Senator Lacson. General Balutan responded with a benign innocent smile.
I interjected, recalling the Miriam Defensor Santiago quote. For a split second, not a comment emanated from anyone in the session. I, too, would not have the guts to say Sen. Lacson is a bobo senator.
Anyway, the day after the joint congressional inquiry, I sent a text message to General Balutan. I told him I was on the way to see him at the PCSO but was informed that the general was in an ongoing Sen. investigation, and so I hurried home to catch the session on television.
“How did you find it?” the general texted back.
“Medyo dehado (you were rather on the losing end),” I replied.
“This has now become a battle of perception rather than of truth,” he said.
(To be continued tomorrow)