The hydra-headed Abu Sayyaf

Just give me vinegar and salt and I will eat their liver.” Thus declared President Duterte in his usual profanity-laced Bisaya patois during the opening of the Palarong Pambansa last April 23. He was visibly exasperated, angered even, by the resilience of the problem posed by the bandit group Abu Sayyaf. Expectedly, he again raised the specter of declaring martial law in Mindanao.

Seemingly unfazed, the Abu Sayyaf has expanded its operations beyond Mindanao. The bandits’ tragic misadventure in Bohol (the media reported other sightings in the Visayas) caught security and intelligence authorities literally with their pants down. It was pathetic that foreign governments were the first to know about the threat, and warned their nationals through their respective embassies. Now, the bandits have upped the ante by beheading a Filipino soldier, a fellow Tausug, to send the strong message that no one is safe from their bestiality.


What gives the Abu Sayyaf a hydra-like life, surviving the onslaught of the full force of the government? Will the President finally decapitate this hydra, like Heracles of Greek mythology?

A discussion of the cause of the problem results in the constant factors: historical injustices to Moros, poverty, illiteracy, and government neglect. Allow me to share my thoughts on that last factor—the neglect of local governments which has served to strengthen the Abu Sayyaf.


In 2005 when I was serving as justice undersecretary, I chaired a 7-man fact-finding team of the Department of Justice to investigate the “root cause” of the crisis in Sulu in February of that year, which was threatening to engulf other Moro provinces. The crisis was triggered by the alleged massacre of a family in Maimbung. Our fact-finding team’s mandate was unique in the sense that it was to determine why it happened rather than who were responsible.

One of the highlights of our report, which included the testimony of personalities representing a cross-section of society, was that the crisis was rooted in the fact that residents “cannot find succor from municipal officials, who rarely report to the municipal hall but instead frequent Zamboanga City or Manila.” One witness blamed the “habitual absence” of mayors, which “hampered the delivery of basic government services,” and their misuse of the Internal Revenue Allotment (IRA) at the expense of local development.

The team recommended, inter alia, that the Department of the Interior and Local Government require the presence of local executives in their area of responsibility and monitor the management and disbursements of local funds especially the IRA. It was recommended as well that a financial and management audit be conducted by the Office of the President and the Commission on Audit.

The Abu Sayyaf and also the Moro rebels subsist and thrive on community support. They fill up the vacuum of local leadership brought about by the chronic absenteeism of mayors. They dispense speedy justice when somebody complains to them. They help bring sick residents to the rural health clinic and console the bereaved in times of grief.

If a farmer complains of the theft of his carabao, they recover it posthaste. They play Robin Hood, sharing ransom money with residents and possibly local executives. The latter are chummy with them and covertly extend support to protect their turf and perpetuate themselves in power. Indeed, local executives have struck a modus vivendi with the rebels, as shown in the failure of the mayors of Basilan to report that two motorboats filled with armed men had set sail for the Visayas.

Given this situation, as in the mythical hydra, you cut off one of its heads and more heads will sprout.  Instead of declaring martial law, perhaps the President should think about cracking the whip on recalcitrant mayors. He has to intervene personally in the campaign to bring the government to the people, and not entrust it to the local executives who hold the electorate hostage through the traditional “3 Gs”—goons, guns and gold.

Macabangkit B. Lanto ([email protected]), UP Law 1967, was a Fulbright Fellow to New York University for his postgraduate studies and has served the government in various capacities.


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TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, Commentary, Duterte, Mindanao, opinion, terrorism, terrorist
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