Nothing had been heard of the fate of two Canadians, one Norwegian and one Filipino woman abducted by gunmen last September from the resort island of Samal in Davao del Norte, until this week when a video surfaced online showing them slumped on a grassy field, surrounded by masked men wielding guns and machetes, against a backdrop of two black flags identified with the terrorist Islamic State. The three Westerners spoke to the camera and pleaded to the Philippine government to stop a military operation that had apparently been launched in pursuit of their kidnappers; they called instead for the Philippines and their respective countries to negotiate for their release with the people holding them.
It’s a chilling video; the captives’ anguished pleas speak of their harrowing conditions and the continuing dangers they face in the hands of bandits shown erupting in cries praising Allah at the end of a statement read in English by one of them. The gunmen said they would negotiate with the Philippine and Canadian governments only if the military operation is stopped.
One of the captives said artillery fire had hit close to where they were being held; more bombardment, he said, and they risked being annihilated along with their kidnappers. Implicit in their desperate call for negotiation rather than military action is the unfortunate template set by the rash of kidnapping incidents in the past that had ended in the release of foreign and Filipino hostages, but only after the payment of tremendous amounts of dollars to their captors. The armed group behind the latest abduction has yet to identify itself, but its stated openness to negotiation—subject to a military ceasefire—suggests this much: that, for all the quasi-religious and political angles hinted at by those sinister Islamic State banners at the back, this is, at heart, just another kidnap-for-ransom operation.
Or is it? Earlier, Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte injected an odd note into this incident by claiming that he had sought the help of a most unlikely ally—Nur Misuari, founding chair of the Moro National Liberation Front and former governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao—to find and secure the release of the captives. Unlikely, because Misuari still happens to be a fugitive, the object of a supposedly continuing manhunt by the government for his role in the MNLF siege of and rampage in Zamboanga in 2013 that resulted in the torching of swaths of the city and the displacement of thousands of its residents, many of them still living in temporary shelters now.
For a law-enforcement operation such as pursuing bandits and securing the release of their captives, why would Duterte (at this writing still presumed presidential timber) turn—and thereby lend renewed legitimacy—to a discredited group that stands accused of lawlessness and carnage, and whose fugitive leader continues to spit at the law? Rather cheekily, the MNLF, seemingly feeling important, had announced that it was willing to help, but on one condition: that the military cease its pursuit of the kidnappers, supposedly because any offensive might endanger the captives and the civilian population.
Never mind the MNLF’s sudden concern for the welfare of the population (a sentiment nowhere to be found when it was ravaging Zamboanga City just three years ago); mind only that its snappy self-assurance that it could help effect the release of the captives raises the suspicion that the mysterious group behind the abduction is connected to it.
On a larger note, the kidnapping-for-ransom sprees in the South that continue to victimize hapless individuals and tarnish the Philippines’ image is an ugly, malingering problem that deserves a place among the fundamental issues directed at those vying for the presidency in 2016. What do the bold aspirants plan to do about the Abu Sayyaf and its ilk, as well as the military’s seeming inability to crush them? The election circus may be in full throttle in the city, but in the jungle, captive lives teeter on the brink.
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