More banditry | Inquirer Opinion
Editorial

More banditry

/ 12:40 AM April 02, 2016

Often left unmentioned in the cacophonous presidential back-and-forth—and certainly yet to be taken up as an issue in the presidential debates—is what the candidates plan to do with the Abu Sayyaf and other rogue groups in the South. That the problem of lawlessness and terrorism in remote areas of Mindanao hardly merited a mention in the first two debates is an indication of how banal the evil has become in the national consciousness—a persistent canker, but so distant from the concerns of the usual chattering classes that no one has even raised with the candidates the heinous number of captives the kidnap-for-ransom gang has notched up: now 24.

The number was only 14 for some time, but on Saturday afternoon or Monday night (the reports are conflicting), 10 more were added: Abu Sayyaf gunmen abducted a boatload of Indonesians who were ferrying coal from Borneo island to the Philippines. Seemingly taking a leaf from Somali pirates who hijack vessels that pass through their part of Africa, the Abu Sayyaf bandits reportedly boarded the tugboat Brahman 12 while it was in Sulu waters, took the crew members captive, and towed the vessel to land; it later drifted toward the coastal village of Tubig Dakula in Languyan, Tawi-Tawi, where it was recovered.

The boat was found to have been stripped clean by the bandits: The navigational equipment and the personal possessions of the crew were all gone. And the 10 Indonesians have vanished along with their captors; they are believed now to be in the jungles of either Sulu or Basilan. But before contact was completely lost, a crew member was reportedly able to sneak a call to the boat owner, using a Taiwanese line, to say that gunmen had taken over their vessel.

The Indonesian foreign ministry itself has confirmed the basics of the hijacking by revealing that the boat owner subsequently received two phone calls from the Abu Sayyaf. The group was demanding ransom of P50 million for the kidnapped Indonesians.

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Of the 14 held captive by the Abu Sayyaf before this incident, seven are foreigners: one Dutch, one Japanese, one Chinese, two Canadians, one Norwegian and one Italian. The 10 Indonesians represent the biggest catch of foreigners recently kidnapped by the bandit group, and if the other captives’ fate is any indication, it would take some time for them to regain their freedom. Incredibly, the Abu Sayyaf is said to maintain a Facebook page, and on it a video has been posted where the group threatens to kill the hostages unless the P50-million ransom demanded is paid by April 8.

What has the Armed Forces said to all this? That the abduction was possibly “diversionary tactics to ease the pressure on [its] besieged forces … following the continuous tactical successes of the security sector against lawless elements and extremists in the islands of Basilan and Sulu.” That was the statement, characterized as an “initial assessment,” made by AFP spokesperson Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla on Wednesday, or three or four days into the incident.

It’s classic nonspeak, neither confirming specifics nor offering a concrete update, except for the pro-forma “there will be no letup in focused military operations in these areas” on how authorities are responding to the latest atrocity from what the AFP has often described as a spent force. Note, however, the self-congratulations that the spokesperson managed to insert into the statement.

The kidnapping of the Indonesians may present another wrinkle beyond the diplomatic and security dilemmas. A source of this paper said that the boatmen were actually working on vessels engaged in illegal mining in Tawi-Tawi, and that local politicians and military officers were behind the illegal operations. If that’s true, the well-placed syndicate would have reason to hush up the incident, keep it out of the headlines as much as possible, and scrub any hint of a bigger story in the Indonesians’ plight beyond the now cut-and-dried, kidnap-for-ransom narrative.

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Clear answers are needed from the military and the government on yet another daring poke in the eye by the Abu Sayyaf—one that, on top of the $81-million money-laundering heist, would certainly further damage the Philippines’ international standing, as a country seemingly overrun by bandits whether in the banking industry or in the remote countryside.

And the presidential candidates ought to be asked the P50-million ransom question: How will they deal with these bandits?

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Abu Sayyaf demands P50 M for Indonesia-flagged vessel taken hostage

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133 Abu Sayyaf killed, 164 wounded in Sulu in 2015, says AFP

TAGS: Abu Sayyaf, banditry, Mindanao, Tawi Tawi

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