Kidnappers in Basilan, Sulu hurt own communities most

The three International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) workers will soon be starting their seventh week in captivity – having being kidnapped while visiting a provincial jail on Jolo Island in Sulu on January 15. Their abduction has been deemed ‘a crime against humanity’ by some observers with ICRC chiefs themselves appealing to the kidnapper’s ‘sense of humanity.’ The Geneva Conventions – part of International Humanitarian Law, clearly forbids the taking of hostages under Article 3. Failing to respect medical workers and the emblem of the Red Cross is also a crime under international law.

While medicines have reportedly been sent and successfully received by Andreas Notter, Eugenio Vagni and Mary Jean Lacaba, the trio are said to be growing increasingly weak from being kept on the constant move and forced to camp rough.

The Philippine military believes they are being held by Abu Sayyaf somewhere within a four-square-kilometer area of dense jungle. Villagers have been moved out of the area and government forces are said to be closing in on the group. Two suspected kidnappers were killed and 11 soldiers reportedly injured on February 9 during a firefight as the military sought to close in on the gang according to Army Brigadier General Gaudencio Pangilinan.

Contact with the hostages is intermittent and demands for negotiations involving the international community have so far been denied. Media reporting of the case is mostly restrained primarily due to professional concerns and increased awareness over possibly impacting what is obviously a delicate situation – but also because of a lack of access. Last year’s kidnapping of Manila-based TV anchor Ces Drilon who visited Sulu hoping for an exclusive interview with an Abu Sayyaf commander was both a sobering lesson for her and much of the media community.

Manila-based and other media visit the area independently and without military protection at their peril. The vast majority of embassies in Manila have long warned their nationals of visiting Mindanao and especially Sulu and the chain of islands remains highly dangerous for internationals. In 2008, Abu Sayyaf threatened to target foreigners visiting Zamboanga and just two weeks ago, a Sri Lankan aid worker living on neighboring Basilan was kidnapped despite working for the International Nonviolent Peace Force, an international NGO.

“Foreigners,” be they from Sri Lanka, Switzerland, or even Manila are viewed with suspicion by some in the communities in the area who are traditionally wary of “outsiders” –and for whom an outsider can mean anybody from a neighboring country, island, village or clan.

Ces Drilon and the three ICRC victims are only the most high profile outsiders to have been targeted by kidnap gangs in the archipelago and the islands of Western Mindanao.

Since January 2008, priests, teachers, manual workers, NGO activists, businessmen, barangay officials, a jeepney driver, a school principal, a midwife- even a nine year old boy – have been snatched for ransom. Many of them remain in captivity.

No fewer than eight people including Sri Lankan Umar Jameel have been abducted in five separate incidents since the Red Cross workers were taken last month.

House Representative Mujiv Hataman of the Anak Mindanao party-list group has claimed that from January through November 2008, no fewer than 33 kidnap-for-ransom cases have been reported with an estimated total of PhP 50 million (USD 1 million) exchanging hands in ransom.

“We can no longer close our eyes to the fact that kidnapping for ransom cases only happens occasionally and only to those considered rich,” says Hataman.

Not only Abu Sayyaf

The Abu Sayyaf (the Sword of God) group has been blamed for a whole series of terror attacks on civilian, religious and military targets across the Philippines, as well as for a series of beheadings of soldiers and civilians alike. But they are only one of many gangs that are believed to be active in the area.

According to journalist Jose Torres Jr., author of the book “Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf,” the lack of employment opportunities and the absence of a source of income for many poor natives in the area have ushered to the emergence of kidnapping as a business.

The Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) is the country’s poorest. According to the National Statistical Coordination Board, more than 55 per cent of the population lived in poverty in 2006 – just over twice the national average of 26.9 percent.

Tawi-Tawi has the highest poverty incidence of 78.9 per cent with other ARMM provinces like Basilan and Sulu registering poverty incidences of 31.7 and 46.5, respectively.

Torres says several armed groups have sprouted in the area, making banditry a source of living. Each group operates on its own but has somehow learned to establish a network among each other, allowing them to pass the custody of a hostage from one group to another to evade and confuse government forces.

But only Abu Sayyaf is believed to have the capability to hold hostages for long. Operating in small cell-like structures, its members are long used to moving through the roughest and most isolated terrain as they try and evade capture or firefights with military patrols. While the Philippine Army with US special force support and technology has claimed great success in targeting the group and reducing its capabilities in recent years, it now could be regrouping under new and younger leadership.

Political demands

This time though, the Abu Sayyaf say they are not asking for ransom –at least not in strict monetary terms. Instead they are asking for a ransom paid in livelihood projects for the predominantly Muslim population of Sulu. They are also demanding the Philippine military pulls out from Jolo.

It is a wily move and helps them claim to be politically-driven and not a criminal gang or terrorist group.

Abu Sayyaf insist they are not “terrorists” but engage in kidnapping to attract the attention of the government in Manila. Abu Sayyaf has reportedly asked the government and ambassadors from Italy, Switzerland and Qatar to negotiate with them.

But many, including Major General Juancho Sabban, commander of the military-led Task
Force Comet, reject the group’s justification for the kidnapping. Sabban has called the demands “ridiculous.”

He adds that bringing in politicians and diplomats to sit down with the kidnappers is far too risky – as Ces Drilon’s abduction last year showed all too well.

Moreover, many hundreds of millions of dollars in development assistance has been poured into the ARMM, disputing claims that it has not been given sufficient attention, adds Sabban. With that, he says, it is the mandate of the Armed Forces to go after the Abu Sayyaf.

Roots of violence

Analysts say it is all too simple – but wrong – to try and blame everything on either Abu Sayyaf or the level of poverty.

Many instead blame a culture of violence and the gun culture where families treasure and prefer weapons over livestock.

Torres says the traditional clannish and feudal cultures have laid the ground for violence and lawlessness. When clans clash, the unspoken but well-understood Moro culture of “blood settled with blood” – the rido comes in.

Local leaders also continue to rule like they are landlords, retaining the gap between the rich and the poor in the aspects of opportunities, privileges and even in the recognition of rights.

This is also why the poor, especially those in remote villages, do not really know any “face of government” as social services could hardly reach them.

The proliferation of loose firearms can make anyone owning one eligible for banditry. Firearms are four to ten times more than the whole human population in the provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan.

Even an ordinary farmer who wants to protect himself has at least one or two guns in his possession. During lean months or when harvest comes scarce, he or his young son can be easily recruited to the bandit gang.

Illegal firearms propagate because no one makes an arrest, says Torres. Such is a reflection of the kind of law enforcement by local leaders who themselves allegedly run their own goons.

Moreover, there is the ongoing issue of the government’s alleged failure to recognize the Muslim Mindanao history, rights and sovereignty. Kidnapping gangs including Abu Sayyaf have been quick to try and capitalize on this.

Alarming level

As abductions reach an alarming level, residents in the affected areas have called on the government to consider it a national security issue that calls for an immediate response.

“This is not a nightmare. This is a bitter and daunting reality that we must face now,” says Hataman.

Many kidnappings – including those of the ICRC workers have taken place in broad daylight and in open, public places and Hataman has asked what the Philippine National Police has been doing.

PNP spokesman Chief Supt. Nicanor Bartolome is quick to respond, saying the police are “doing their best” and that all mechanisms have been put in place to address the issue.

However, he emphasizes factors that make police work in the areas of Basilan, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu more difficult than elsewhere.

The kidnappers he says enjoy civilian support from relatives in the area. “The support of the people cannot be discounted,” adds Bartolome, claiming ransoms are often divided up to benefit the extended families and relatives of the kidnappers.

But Bartolome is skeptical of the figures cited by the Anak Mindanao party-list group. The Police Anti-Crime Emergency Response has listed only 11 kidnap-for-ransom cases nationwide in 2008.

Whatever the real figures, it is clear that while some local people clearly benefit from the cottage industry that is kidnapping, no real industry, investment or development of any kind will really come until the communities face down those who terrorize others from within their midst. – CLAIRE DELFIN, Philippine Human Rights Reporting Project

(The author is a television news reporter of GMA Network, Inc. and is a regular contributor of special reports on women, children, education, health, and the environment to the network’s news Web site GMANews.TV.)

Published in: on March 3, 2009 at 10:16 pm  Comments Off on Kidnappers in Basilan, Sulu hurt own communities most  
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