Just when we think the Philippines has redeemed itself in the eyes of the world with its efforts to stamp out corruption, comes news of the kidnapping of three foreigners and a Filipino woman on Samal Island. The case threatens to push the country back into the category of lawless wilderness ruled by bandits.
The Sept. 21 kidnapping brings to mind the April 2000 abductions in which the Abu Sayyaf barged into the resort island of Sipadan and made off with 21 hostages, who were subsequently released separately after the payment of huge dollar ransoms.
Barely a year later, on May 27, 2001, the bandit group struck again, taking 20 hostages from the Dos Palmas resort in Palawan. That case dragged on for at least a year and involved protracted negotiations, the siege of several towns and hospitals, and the kidnapping of more civilians used as shields in the skirmishes between the Abu Sayyaf and pursuing military troops. At least five of the original hostages, including two Americans and a Filipino nurse, were killed, as were an unknown number of captors and soldiers.
But the latest kidnapping is curious for a number of reasons. No group has yet come forward to claim responsibility, or to demand ransom. A message purportedly left by the abductors claimed they were members of the New People’s Army—a claim quashed by Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte who pointed out that communist rebels are ideologues who are not engaged in kidnapping people for money. An official of the Moro National Liberation Front said the kidnappers were Abu Sayyaf members. And Duterte claimed to have information that the four hostages had indeed been turned over to the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu.
If that’s true, then the Abu Sayyaf is not a spent force, as the military itself once claimed. It has not been neutralized, and it has regrouped, possibly with new members under a new leader.
The military is curiously subdued in its statements, appearing to be begging local government officials for crumbs of information on the whereabouts of the hostages and their captors. So desperate the military seems to be that it has turned to a renegade for help in finding leads to pursue—Nur Misuari, founding chair of the MNLF, former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, and still in hiding after the infamous Zamboanga siege of 2013.
Duterte was reported as saying that he had sought the assistance of the MNLF in finding the hostages, and that it had promised to help. In return, the MNLF is seeking a stop to any military offensive as it might endanger the lives of the hostages and the civilian population.
“The MNLF members are [also] reinforcing the outer perimeter area of Brother Nur to avoid misencounter. There is an understanding they will not attack the location of Brother Nur, although we are aware he has a pending warrant of arrest,” an MNLF official was reported as saying.
Malacañang is willing to accept the help of “organizations and individuals” to solve the case, a Palace official declared of the man and his group who ravaged Zamboanga City in a three-week siege that cost the lives of scores of civilians. Displaced families have yet to find decent dwellings since.
With the piecemeal information hardly helping, with the conflicting reports, as well as the curious silence of the perpetrators, one is led to wonder: Is this kidnapping a chest-thumping operation intended to announce that the discredited MNLF is still a force not to sneeze at?
With the fugitive “Brother Nur” suddenly regaining currency, and being sought to lend a hand, is the public being made to conclude that he, and not the Moro Islamic Liberation Front with whom the administration has formulated the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law, holds the cards, and that Mindanao remains very much his turf?
With kidnapping for ransom apparently still a going cottage industry down south, or an ace in the hand for power brokers, the administration and concerned officials should be reminded of the others abducted by bandits and who remain missing and unheard from: the European birdwatchers, the local teachers and businessmen. Who will speak for them, beg for information about them, confirm sightings of them? Who will help arrange their release?
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