(Editor’s note: This story was updated to include the advisories of some foreign governments to their citizens against travelling to some parts of Mindanao.)
Mindanao. A recent tweet by journalist Raissa Robles that opening up Mindanao to tourism will lead to a rise in kidnapping activities by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) and other bandits lacks context.
On June 2, Robles quote-tweeted a post by Twitter user @Pulitika2010 involving an article link published by broadsheet Business Mirror entitled ‘New tourism chief: In ‘unity’ there will be fun.’
Robles was commenting on the plan of incoming Tourism Secretary Christina Garcia-Frasco to promote lesser-known tourism destinations in the country.
The writer’s post stirred a furor from various stakeholders in Mindanao who protested the negative portrayal of the island as a haven of kidnappers.
The Abu Sayyaf, which means “Bearer of the Sword” in Arabic, was founded by Afghan-trained militant Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani to establish an independent Islamic state in Mindanao upon his return in 1991 to Basilan, one of the 27 provinces in the southern Philippines.
It later engaged in terroristic attacks and kidnapping activities, including the abduction of 21 people, mostly foreigners, from a dive resort in Sipadan, Malaysia and 20 foreign and local tourists from the Dos Palmas Beach Resort in Palawan, which belongs to Luzon island, in the early 2000s.
The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), which the United States classified as a foreign terrorist organization as early as 1997, has been known to operate in Basilan and Sulu, island-provinces belonging to what is now known as the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
BARMM, with a population of at least 4.4 million people, is one of the six regions in Mindanao, the country’s second largest island-grouping whose total population stood at 26.25 million as of May 2020. Mindanao has 27 provinces and 33 cities.
The Western Mindanao Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines estimated the number of ASG fighters, who are mostly operating in Basilan and Sulu, at 300 two years ago. https://www.pna.gov.ph/articles/1091712
In a March 2022 report, the International Crisis Group, a non-profit peace advocacy organization, said the ASG forces in Basilan and Sulu have been weakened although not yet defeated. https://www.crisisgroup.org/asia/south-east-asia/philippines/323-addressing-islamist-militancy-southern-philippines
Stressing the strides of the government against the ASG,Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said that 1,544 Abu Sayyaf members were neutralized by the military in the last six years under the Duterte administration, which means they were either killed, arrested or surrendered to authorities. https://mb.com.ph/2022/05/30/six-years-of-hits-and-misses-the-security-justice-peace-situation-under-duterte-administration/
In the past several years, the Abu Sayyaf, despite being weakened, still managed to snatch victims, including the abduction in September 2015 of three foreigners and a Filipina in Samal Island, Davao del Norte. Two of the foreigners were beheaded while the two others were freed separately. In October 2019, the Abu Sayyaf also abducted a British national and his wife in Tukuran, Zamboanga del Sur. They were later rescued by government forces in Sulu.
In May 2017, the ASG joined forces with the Maute Group in staging the Marawi siege in a failed bid to establish the country’s only Islamic city as a province of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia. The five-month urban warfare left the core of Marawi in rubble. The national government has conducted construction works to rebuild the city.
The United States, United Kingdom and Australia have issued travel advisories to their citizens against travelling to some parts of Mindanao, including the Sulu archipelago due to the threats of terrorism and kidnapping. https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/traveladvisories/traveladvisories/philippines-travel-advisory.html https://www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/philippines/safety-and-security#local-travel https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/destinations/asia/philippines
Despite the kidnapping incidents and the travel advisories of some countries, the Department of Tourism (DOT), particularly its officials in Mindanao, still remained zealous in promoting the island as a premier tourist destination in the country over the years.
Last month, outgoing Tourism Secretary Bernadette Romulo-Puyat led the launching of the “Colors of Mindanao,” a campaign to promote Mindanao’s destination, diverse culture, landscape and food offerings. https://www.facebook.com/colorsofmindanao/
“While each province is known for their unique attributes, this is the first time that the whole of Mindanao is united under one banner,” Romulo-Puyat stressed.
The campaign was spearheaded by Tourism Undersecretary for Mindanao Myra Paz Valderrosa-Abubakar and the regional directors of Zamboanga Peninsula, Northern Mindanao, CARAGA, the Davao region and Soccsksargen.
The recent sweeping claim of Robles, who writes for the South China Morning Post, that opening up tourism in Mindanao will give the Abu Sayyaf potential kidnap victims has been resented by Mindanao leaders and bashed by netizens.
Representative Mujiv Hataman of the lone district of Basilan, where the Abu Sayyaf originated, said the ASG is no “longer a threat” in the area, noting the province’s Program Against Violent Extremism has become effective in encouraging the bandits to return to mainstream society.
“Since 2016, there’s no kidnapping in Basilan,” said Hataman, who also served as governor of the defunct Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Vice President-elect Sara Duterte, incumbent mayor of Davao City, said the views expressed by Robles on Mindanao in reaction to the plan of the incoming tourism secretary to develop the region as a tourist destination “are replete with journalistic recklessness and irresponsibility — something that calls for our collective condemnation as it grossly discriminated against all Mindanawons, especially those living in Moro communities.”
“What Robles did was a demonization of Mindanao and an insult to its people, who also deserve to experience the gains of the Duterte administration over the past six years,” the presidential daughter said in a statement.
In a succeeding social media post, Robles defended her tweet.
“What I’m saying here is that parts of Mindanao are not ready for tourism due to security issues. So if the Department of Tourism launches a program welcoming tourists in all of Mindanao, I fear this will be a magnet for bandits and kidnappers to prey on unwitting tourists,” she wrote.
Presidential Adviser on Peace, Reconciliation and Unity Carlito Galvez, Jr. said the peace and order condition in Mindanao has significantly improved with the implementation of the provisions of the Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro (CAB). https://peace.gov.ph/2022/03/galvez-lauds-improved-security-stability-in-sulu-opapru-lays-groundwork-to-help-transform-former-combatants-camps-into-peaceful-resilient-communities/
The CAB was signed by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014 after 17 years of negotiations. Its key component is the creation of the Bangsamoro region, which was realized in 2019 following a plebiscite that ratified the Republic Act 11054 or the Organic Law for the BARMM.
President Rodrigo Duterte earlier said he will be leaving the presidency with a relatively peaceful Mindanao.
As with all our other reports, MindaNews welcomes leads or suggestions from the public to potential fact-check stories. (Yas D. Ocampo and Bong S. Sarmiento / MindaNews)
(This fact-check piece was produced with the support of Internews’ Philippine Fact-Checker Incubator Project.)