The government, if true and sincere to its no-ransom policy will not pay ransom or allow others to pay it; and, it will not try an all-out military rescue operation lest the hostages would be recovered dead. The government is utterly helpless.
How are the hostages to be freed?
As implied by the two highest MNLF officials – MNLF Chairman Muslimin Sema and Secretary General Abdul Sahim – the government is in a no-win situation, suggesting that the government and the military have to be more creative. The Abu Sayyaf is holding the ace that only money can top.
The rescue operation has been coordinated and directed by Task Force ICRC and the crisis committee headed by Sulu Gov. Abdulsakur Tan. The military and about 1,000 armed civilian volunteers have surrounded the area where the kidnappers are holed in with their hostages.
Despite this the Abu Sayyaf are obviously in control. Evidently, they are still free to move around in a fairly wide area. Two weeks ago, according to Sahim, the Filipina hostage Mary Jean Lacaba was moved to Patikul and the two foreigners to Indanan.
In the battle of will and resolve, the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers have made history. They have stuck to their demands for ransom and conditions for negotiation, eluded military encirclement, and sown fear by beheading hostages without qualms of conscience. They know well the terrain and are well armed with protection from the local residents.
In the case of the ICRC hostages, Sema believes that “the Abu Sayyaf would not waver in their demand for money”. And, as borne out by their refusal to entertain negotiators, they are sticking, too, to their demand for the military to withdraw from their positions for negotiations to take place.
I don’t think they will back out from an invitation to play hard ball. One of the armed civilian volunteers helping the military cordon the Abu Sayyaf hideout boasted to the Philippine Daily Inquirer (INQUIRER.net, March 8), as quoted:
“We are in a better position. They [kidnappers] hold the three captives, pero hawak namin ang lugar at cordoned sila [but we hold the areas and they have been cordoned].”
“Kung patagalan and gusto nila, hindi kami aalis sa lugar [if they pay hard ball, we will not leave the place].”
Who, in truth, is in “a better position”? In a hard ball game, the
more the three hostages will suffer, not the Abu Sayyaf. Prolonged captivity will be an excuse for the Abu Sayyaf to raise the sum for board and lodging and pangsigarilyo (for cigarette).
From experience, the Abu Sayyaf know that if the government will not pay the ransom, somebody or some group — in 2000, the Khadaffy Foundation ransomed the Sipadan hostages — will pay, with the government never minding despite its “no-ransom” policy. They must be seeing and smelling money. Long before 2009 ends, the ICRC hostages will be ransomed out with no one owning up or admitting so – with media cooperation.
How unbelievable! The government is – not only seems – helpless. And so are the military and the police.
President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, with all her powers, can only issue toothless orders and invoke the government’s no-ransom policy. While pinned-up by Malacañang as a hands-on president, she is not so when faced with Abu Sayyaf kidnappings. Are these terrorists immune from presidential charm or any form of blandishment?
Sema considers the Abu Sayyaf as part of Moro liberation movement. It splintered from the MNLF. In 1996, Abdulrajak Abubakar Janjalani, the Abu Sayyaf founder, ridiculed the MNLF for accepting the government’s peace offer and trying to convince them “to trust the peace process and let the MNLF lead the way”.
He relates the impotency of the President to solve the Abu Sayyaf problem and to get the cooperation of the Tausugs to the failure of the government to implement fully the 1996 GRP-MNLF agreement, especially forgetting the economic package. He is saying that socio-economic neglect has nourished terrorism and the people’s apathy.
If this is true and the government has not seen it, it is unbelievable. If the government has seen yet it has continued to ignore, that is doubly unbelievable.
But the impotency of the government is down to the local level. The Sulu governor, the municipal mayors and the barangay leaders have been ignored by the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers and their appeal for help to free the hostages has fallen on deaf ears. Are they identified with Manila’s negligence; or, are they, too, apathetic behind the pretense of cooperation?
It is unbelievable that as local leaders – not only elected but traditional – they cannot secure without ransom the release of the ICRC officials who had come to bring help.
The Abu Sayyaf may be well armed. But they are a mere handful compared to army and marine brigades and divisions in Sulu with American tactical and logistic support. Their helplessness is an unbelievable fact.
Despite the Blunders
Definitely, the effort to release the ICRC hostages is at a stalemate. Sema and Sahim have called the latest choice of MNLF founder Nur Misuari as negotiator a blunder. He is part of the problem, they said. He is identified with the MNLF’s failure “to prove to our Moro brothers that the peace process works” as “the only road to achieving the aspirations of the Bangsamoro people”. Many in the Abu Sayyaf are angry with him.
The condition of the ICRC hostages was discussed during the March 7 command conference of the MNLF in Pasil, Sulu attended by 22 state commanders. The present MNLF under its new leadership can help.
The Bangsamoro has a formula, Sema said. “But as of now, no one among our commanders will interfere in this hostage situation and act as negotiator if there’s no clear request from the government.”
Sahim explained this wait-and-see stance of the MNLF: “… we are not initiating any move because we are quite careful to avoid the fate of our comrade, Alvarez Isnaji.” Isnaji, the mayor of Indanan, actively negotiated the release of kidnapped ABS-CBN broadcast journalist Ces Drilon and her crew in June last year. He ended in jail at Camp Crame together with his son accused as the brain of the kidnapping.
Despite the blunders – the choice of Misuari and the implication of Isnaji in an earlier kidnap case – the MNLF is suggesting to the government to clearly – officially, that is – request the services of its commanders “to get involved” in the release of the ICRC officials. The capacity of the MNLF commanders in Sulu to deliver should not be doubted. The suggestion should be appreciated, welcomed and accepted.
After criticizing the government of its blunders, Sema and Sahim, in suggesting the MNLF’s willingness to help — if clearly requested – are adding insult to injury. The suggestion is an alternative to either paying the P50-M ransom or attacking the hostage takers all-out.
Will President Arroyo tap the MNLF, giving it the free hand to negotiate and accepting whatever terms are agreed for the release of the hostages?
("Comment" is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz' column for MindaViews, the opinion section of
MindaNews. Mr. Diaz is the recipient of a "Lifetime Achievement Award" from the Titus Brandsma for his "commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate." You may e-mail your comments to [email protected]).