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Who benefits?

Was it P7 million or P4 million? The amount of the ransom paid for the release of Australian Warren Rodwell has become an issue of contention, as local officials in Basilan as well as Rodwell’s wife have denied an earlier report that part of the money went to intermediaries and middlemen who helped negotiate Rodwell’s release from captivity by the bandit group Abu Sayyaf. Miraflor Gutang, Rodwell’s wife, acknowledged that the kidnappers had initially demanded P7 million, “but I told them Warren and I could only raise as much as P4 million.” To raise the amount, she said, she had to sell their house, water refilling station and vehicle, and seek help from relatives abroad.

No one should begrudge the lengths Gutang went to obtain her husband’s release. Anyone would do the same for a loved one whose ordeal in the hands of kidnappers notorious for beheading their captives had stretched on for an appalling 15 months. Rodwell, 54, was snatched on Dec. 5, 2011, from his house in Ipil town by Abu Sayyaf bandits posing as policemen, and for interminable months was moved from one island to another and made to trek through the jungle as negotiations for his release stretched on. When he was released in Pagadian City, the ex-soldier was so weakened that he could hardly walk or even bring a cup of coffee to his lips. But he could still make light of his emaciated condition: “Skeleton,” he quipped as he took off his shirt for the camera.

Is it being cynical to say that, whatever promise of peace and stability in the horizon for Mindanao that was raised by the announcement last year of a “framework agreement” between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, such hope has lately floundered on the rocks of some bafflingly unforeseen—or perhaps glossed over—complications?

For one, the long-dormant Sabah question has exploded into a full-blown diplomatic crisis for the Aquino administration as the Sultanate of Sulu tried to stake its claim by forcing a showdown with Malaysia. However clumsy the Kiram family’s moves were, it’s surprising to realize how the government has neglected to include such traditionally powerful local stakeholders in the new autonomous map of Mindanao that it is mandated to draw up with the MILF under the framework agreement.

On top of the strife spawned by the Kirams’ adventure, the reemergence of Rodwell from captivity highlights another unresolved Mindanao problem: the kidnap-for-ransom industry that continues to thrive in the region despite the government having declared time and again that the Abu Sayyaf is a spent force, or at least one that is constantly on the run. The reality is that the bandit group remains a formidable scourge, both for the impunity with which it is able to carry out its crimes, and for the vast amounts in ransom money that it has amassed from its string of abductions over the years.

At this time, two Europeans, a Jordanian journalist and a Japanese are still being held by the bandits. Rodwell’s release on the strength of the payment of ransom—P4 million or P7 million?—indicates that the remaining captives will not be tasting freedom anytime soon for anything less. The government may publicly stick to its guns, as it has in Rodwell’s case, that it has a strict no-ransom policy, but in the end, considerations of preserving the lives of kidnap victims will be paramount, so money will change hands, and the violent rigmarole simply reinforces itself.

The Abu Sayyaf has terrorized large swathes of Mindanao and kidnapped dozens of people over the years, at least 15 of them church people who were doing invaluable service to poor and remote communities. The United States appears to have hundreds of soldiers based in the area to augment the firepower and intelligence of the Philippine military, which itself has been allocated millions of pesos of public funds through the years for use in the campaign to rout out this supposedly ragtag bandit group.

And yet the war against the Abu Sayyaf is nowhere near even a stalemate. Its gallery of unfortunate victims grows longer and more international every year, dealing a perpetual black eye to the government’s assurances that lawlessness in Mindanao is being dealt with. Once again, it should be asked: Who is benefiting from keeping the Abu Sayyaf alive, and from the kidnap-for-ransom industry?


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