The US travel alert on parts of the province of Palawan is worrisome and unfortunate for Philippine tourism. The Armed Forces may declare that it has not monitored a “specific threat” to one of the country’s tourist-drawers, but that’s cold comfort in light of the US Embassy’s advisory, issued May 9, stating it had “received credible information that terrorist groups may be planning to conduct kidnapping operations targeting foreign nationals in the areas of Palawan Province, Philippines, to include Puerto Princesa City, and the areas surrounding Puerto Princesa Subterranean River National Park.”
Many among us remember that in 2001, the Abu Sayyaf swooped down on an upscale resort in Palawan’s Honda Bay and kidnapped 20 people including the American missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham. Between then and about a year later, the abductions put a damper on the Philippines’ many tourist destinations, the bandits took the captives to their stronghold in Basilan, a beheading took place, huge amounts of money changed hands, military operations were launched, and Martin Burnham and Filipino nurse Edibora Yap were killed in the final crossfire.
Periodic military operations notwithstanding, the Abu Sayyaf still lives, rising and falling with the times, fluctuating from being a “spent force” to a robust, albeit ragtag, group. Only last month it traveled from its base in the South to Bohol, similarly a tourism magnet, catching the authorities literally with their pants down. More than 60 bandits suddenly showed up in the mountain village of Napo in Inabanga town some 71 kilometers from the capital Tagbilaran City, and engaged government forces in a fire fight that left nine people dead. It got to a point where Air Force planes were dropping bombs on suspected enemy lairs. According to the military, the bandits had planned to kidnap foreign nationals for ransom.
Earlier, the US Embassy issued a travel warning to Americans about Central Visayas, and Philippine authorities said they saw no terror threat in the area.
The tourism sector is reportedly feeling the effect of the US travel advisory on Palawan, the pearl among the country’s destinations, which is visited by more than a million tourists each year. To add to the concern, the British Embassy cited the US Embassy advisory in its warning to British nationals to “carefully consider travel plans and exercise heightened vigilance” in Palawan.
To be sure, the Philippine military through its spokesperson Col. Edgard Arevalo has announced that it had tightened monitoring and security operations in the cited areas including the Puerto Princesa Subterranean River, which is in the World Heritage list. With the threat of terrorism rearing its ugly head in certain areas in the Philippines, it behooves the authorities to beef up intelligence operations to nip the threat in the bud.
It would also do well for authorities to come to grips with how and why the bandit group continues to thrive despite years of pursuit. In a commentary in Inquirer Opinion, “The hydra-headed Abu Sayyaf,” Macabangkit Lanto offered this perspective: “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.”
Lanto, who has worked in the government in various capacities, continued: “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.”
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