How to do away with Abu Sayyaf
By AMIRAH ALI LIDASAN
For the nth time, the Philippine government has declared an all-out war against the kidnap-for-ransom group Abu Sayaff. This came about after International Committee on the Red Cross volunteer Eugenio Vagni was released by the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu after 60 days in captivity.
Department of Defense chief Gilberto Teodoro Jr. urged residents to ‘stop tolerating the Abu Sayyaf’ as government forces intensify pursuit operations in Sulu. On the other hand, the Red Cross group led by presidential aspirant Senator Richard Gordon and Vagni himself, offered amnesty for Abu Sayyaf members to quell the group’s terrorist activities in Basilan and Sulu. The amnesty offer is even combined with future livelihood projects for the area as promised by Vagni’s fellow Italian countryman.
Having heard these proposals, I wonder how my fellow Moro people would react. The Moro people are known for their pride. The Moro nation where they belong has been the cradle of Islamic and Moro indigenous cultural and political system in the country. They scorn the government’s categorization of their communities as being one of the poorest provinces. The place is rich in aquatic and land resources but the people do not benefit from their produces. Instead, in the case of Sulu and Basilan, their businessmen and landed politicos appropriate the income of the island provinces among themselves, transport the products to Zamboanga and secretly buy properties in Zamboanga and Manila to hide their profits. Nothing comes back to the province.
While majority of the people became poor because of this system, the local government attributes their disadvantaged position to the failure of the national government to distribute the national income to the rest of the country. While this is true, it also hides the fact that allied governors of the national leadership are also enriched by the funds appropriated by the President through pork barrels and projects. The national government, on the other hand, blames the “terrorist” activities of the Moro armed group in different parts of Mindanao as the reason why development shuns the Moro areas.
Under this political condition in the Moro areas, the two proposals could spell disaster for the people of Sulu and Basilan. The proposal only reinforces the martial law policy of the local government in Sulu and Basilan which has led to reports of abuses by the police, the military and local officials.
On March 31 this year, the Sulu provincial government declared the province under a state of emergency. This is part of the government’s efforts to catch the Abu Sayyaf group holding hostage the three ICRC workers. The declaration justified the setting up checkpoints and chokepoints, the conduct of arbitrary searches and seizures, and “other actions or operations as may be necessary to ensure public safety”. Months earlier, several men were recruited as paramilitary groups to serve as “defense system” in the province.
A Sulu-based civil society group has petitioned for a temporary restraining order against the implementation of the state of emergency on the basis of its unconstitutionality. The group also cited in their petition reports of arbitrary arrests and torture of policemen tagged by the provincial governor as supporters of the Abu Sayaff.
In turn, one of the petitioners, Temogen “Cocoy” Tulawie, former Jolo councilor and known for leading protests against human rights violations in Sulu, was charged as accomplice to the assassination attempt on Sulu governor Sakur Tan on May 13 this year.
We might consider the arrest and detention of the wives and family of Abu Sayyaf leader Albader Parad as a result of this declaration, giving too much power for the Philippine Marines and provincial government of arbitrarily arresting and detaining without charges. Their remedy, pin the blame of the July 6 bombing in the market town in Jolo on the wives. In the end, the military and local government admitted using the wives as pressure point for the Abu Sayaff to release Vagni.
Basilan in 2001 was also declared under “state of lawlessness” by virtue of a Department of Justice memorandum. This led to more than 500 arrests, 32 cases of torture against the Philippine Army and hundreds of civilians displaced in the course of hot pursuit operations. The Abu Sayaff still thrives. Despite yearly threats of intensified military operations since 2001, minor kidnap-for-ransom gangs in Basilan still were able to kidnap residents and visitors in the area, including non-government workers and poor teachers.
Military solution only destroys the lives of civilians in these provinces. People who were displaced could not come back to their communities for fear of being included as targets. This destroys livelihood. Innocent civilians who were arrested and detained find it hard to make up for more than three years of being away from their families and innocent children die in the course military operations.
As for the livelihood assistance, the Italian businessman and friend of Vagni should be informed of the intricacies in the dissemination of aids and assistances in the country and their effect on the people in the long term. Any foreign assistance in the form of development aid, relief or projects, does not go directly to the people. In the course of its implementation, the budget gets stuck at the local government level – from provincial governor’s office to the barangay captain’s. In the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, no aid passes through without the regional governor’s perusal. Hence, there’s not much impact on the livelihood of the people, although they enrich some individuals who have access to the funds.
Now we come to the offer of amnesty. I don’t know if the government or the Italian envoys can differentiate an ordinary kidnapper who calls himself Abu Sayyaf from the real Abu Sayyaf in Sulu and Basilan. Or an Abu Sayaff from the militant Moro armed groups such as Moro National Liberation Front or the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. An Abu Sayaff who has no political agenda is different from the two armed groups who are fighting a war to correct a historical injustice, and who could come up with common talking points for a peace negotiation with the government.
It is confusing for the government to define the Abu Sayyaf as a terrorist group and then offer amnesty or initiate talks with them. It only exposes that the military solution is to flush out civilians in communities but not really to bring down the Abu Sayyaf. For the presence of Abu Sayaff in Sulu and Basilan is what fuels the hawks in the government to ask for additional budget for security and military aid from the US government. This will justify the prolonged presence of the US troops and the conduct of US-RP joint military training, and even push for the implementation of the Human Security Act at the national level.
The government and the military have a lot to explain why the Abu Sayyaf and minor kidnap-for-ransom thugs proliferate in Mindanao despite threats and military operations. One cannot help but see the similarity between the Abu Sayyaf threats and the bomb threats in Mindanao for weeks now. They serve the same purpose.
It took four bombings in two days that resulted to the death of a dozen people, including children, and the wounding of a hundred more just to get US President Barrack Obama’s attention. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo will be the first Asian President to meet Obama on July 30 in Washington, DC.
The CIA chief’s visit on June 12 in Malacanang was curiously downplayed as part of the CIA chief’s ‘routine’ visit to Asia-Pacific. However, it only increased suspicion that the bombings created a condition for the US government to strengthen ties with the Philippines in the name of quelling terrorism.
We already saw the US soldiers’ involvement in the investigation of the bombings in Cotabato City and Sulu. Since the declaration of the war on terror in 2001, US military and Federal Bureau of Investigation counterparts in the Philippines have been getting enormous amount of training in foiling bombings and terrorism. Yet, mysteriously bombs kept exploding in Mindanao and Manila.
The talks on the streets of Mindanao sum it all – who really benefited from these bombings? Whose agenda fuel the senseless killings of innocent civilians?
Certainly not the Moro people in Mindanao who become the usual suspects every time a bomb explodes. In Manila, Moro men will soon suffer the brunt of military operations as they often are falsely accused, rounded up and detained. Whose communities would be the subject of aerial bombardment and mortar shelling as a result of a military pursuit operation on alleged perpetrators of the bombings?
Since the August 5 botched peace talks after the failed Memorandum of Agreement on the Ancestral Domain, the Moro people have had no break from the incessant military operations in provinces identified as MILF lair: Maguindanao, North Cotabato, Lanao del Sur, Lanao del Norte and Saranggani. The year-long military campaign has displaced 340,000 families and individuals, an unaccounted number of deaths including women and children who became legitimate targets of military operations.
Curiously, the military campaign justified DND secretary Teodoro’s request for additional funds and troops to Mindanao. It also gave an excuse for local government units to distribute firearms and create its own vigilante groups in the guise of “defense system” against the MILF.
The Moro people have so much to demand from President Arroyo on her last State of the Nation Address. As the people of the world associated the US “war on terror” with former US President George W. Bush, the Moro people associated it with President Arroyo. The worldwide anti-terror campaign has played a big part in buffing up US military aid and budget to the Philippines to provide for the overt and covert military operations in Mindanao. We, the Moro people, became cannon fodders for the Arroyo government’s bid to strengthen ties with Washington.
(Amirah Ali Lidasan is the national president of the Suara-Bangsamoro partylist group.)