Saturday, September 29, 2012

A Hostaged Island, by Jose Torres Jr.

June 21, 2001, Newsbreak Weekly, A hostaged island, by Jose Torres Jr., Newsbreak contributor,

AN ESTIMATED 400,000 loose firearms circulate in this province of only 332,828 people.

While Muslims constitute 71 percent of the population, Christians own 75 percent of the land.

The Chinese-Filipino families, on the other hand, control 75 percent of local trade.

At the turn of the century, multinational corporations such as Sime Darby and the Manila-based Menzi family controlled most of the land that produced exports such as rubber, coffee, African palm oil and pepper. But good news came somehow.

The big landholdings were broken up with the passage of agrarian reform law under the Aquino government. Some 17,900 hectares of agricultural estates above 50 hectares were titled and distributed to 50,450 farmer-beneficiaries who have organized themselves into cooperatives.

However, the law has virtually bypassed the native Yakan population. Most of the beneficiaries are settlers from the Visayas region, who were brought to the island by the American firms they worked for early this century.

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) is a disaster waiting to happen in a social volcano like Basilan.

The province's top two political leaders--Gov. Wahab Akbar and Rep. Abdulgani "Gerry" Salapuddin--are on opposing sides though they come from the same Yakan ethnic group. Wahab first became governor in 1998 with an Erap-like image: brash but charismatic, generous with peso bills, and macho. Akbar is very much identified with the Estrada government.

Salapuddin, on the other hand, used to be with the Laban ng Demokratikong Pilipino (as governor under the Aquino and Ramos regimes) but he later joined the Lakas-NUCD, which is now part of the ruling coalition.

Akbar is known as a former Abu Sayyaf commander; Salapuddin was a former commander of the Moro National Liberation Front until his surrender to the Marcos government in the early 1980s. Another key player in Basilan politics is Candu Muarip, a former governor, who is described by residents as a warlord and a perennial loser in local politics.

Not one of them was able to succeed in curbing criminality in the province. Two institutions probably played a more critical role: the Catholic Church and the military. First deployed on the island at the height of the Moro separatist war in the 1970s, the two institutions have the most persistent but controversial presence in the province.

When the military is not settling conflicts here, it is initiating such conflicts. When the Catholic Church is not busy helping war victims, it becomes a victim of the war itself.

And when all else fails, can the residents turn to the judiciary? Not in this province. Most kidnappers have standing charges in court, but none of the judges dare issue warrants of arrest. "What works in Basilan is the law of the gun," says Claretian priest Angel Calvo. "Those who have guns control everything and can do what they want because the judicial system doesn't work."

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It is thus no wonder that cynicism fills the air. It's difficult to say what story to believe anymore or which version of the ongoing war is closer to reality. Residents have always speculated on the ties of the Abu Sayyaf with the military, and the recent military blunder on the island has reinforced such conspiracy theory.

People ask tough questions that illustrate their misgivings about what the military here says it has done or what it intends to do to maintain peace on the island. Why were the soldiers pulled out from the back of the hospital in Lamitan at the height of the fight between Army troops and the Abu Sayyaf? Were the bandits allowed to escape? Why did the soldiers keep on shooting until the early hours of June 3 when, the residents assert, the bandits made their escape as early as 5:30 p.m. the previous day?

The Armed Forces is quick to admit, albeit quietly, that the battle in Lamitan will probably fall under the category of the Army's worst operations in recent history. It immediately relieved the ground commander at the time, Col. Jovenal Narcise, replacing him with Col. Hermogenes Esperon, who was previously assigned to central Mindanao, bailiwick of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

But the official word emanating from the Armed Forces spokesman is that the ASG members were able to slip through the military darkness because they used human shields. The military wanted to save lives, so the troops held their fire to avoid hitting hostages. At least that's what Brig. Gen. Edilberto Adan has been saying.

It's a statement scoffed at by residents who expected more. Many in Lamitan say they saw ASG members casually walk away from the hospital and that it was the armed civilian volunteers, not the soldiers, who actually began the firefight with the kidnappers.

For the Catholic Church, the blunder of June 2 has not been easy to comprehend. The Lamitan battle has made it more difficult for Church leaders to "console the anger and frustration" of the victims.

"Most people in Lamitan and even the whole of Basilan are puzzled at how easily the Abu Sayyaf have entered and exited a clearly identified and enclosed target," said Fr. Martin Jumuad in a statement. Jumuad is the Catholic Church administrator on the island.

"The Abu Sayyaf's evil presence wrought colossal destruction to life and property. People can perhaps live and accept what they have done by their identity as barbaric, bloodthirsty bandits and terrorists," Jumuad said.

"However, it is very difficult to console the anger and frustration of many victims on how the military and police leadership blundered in their operation that even caused a big number of casualties from demoralized subordinate soldiers."

Because of the Lamitan fiasco, residents who were once just mere spectators and unwilling actors in the show now want to fight the war themselves.

A Christian vigilante group named "Concerned BasileƱos" already volunteered to deal with the ASG. They said they want to exact justice from the bandit group. They also want martial law declared in Basilan.

"We are tired of the fighting, the kidnappings and the casualties," a spokesman of the group says. "It's time to stop it."

Catholic priest Cirilo Nacorda even wants to arm civilians in Lamitan, a predominantly Catholic town here. Reports said the priest even taught his parishioners to buy firearms instead of home appliances. Nacorda carries a .45 caliber pistol and an M-14 rifle when he travels.

In explaining the cause he has chosen to fight, Nacorda tells his parishioners: "We cannot protect our lives by just prayers or dialogue. We have to be practical."

Nacorda has openly blamed certain military units for their previous ties with the ASG. And he is not alone. Some residents openly talk about their suspicion that the government's war against the Abu Sayyaf is all for show.

In 1994, for instance, locals saw Barahama Sali, an Abu Sayyaf commander who kidnapped Nacorda, with Marine troops. This was at the time that Sali was housing 23 hostages in Lantawan town. The Marines were part of a rescue-assault team that was supposed to run after Sali.

Residents did not come out to talk about it then for fear "not of Sali, but of military higher-ups." Even a local policeman who was surprised by what he saw said: "Hindi ko na naiintindihan ito (I could no longer understand this)."

A former ASG leader admits to Newsbreak that they bought their guns from the military. "We bought guns from them," says Ahmad Sampang (not his real name), an original member of the Abu Sayyaf, who used to join what he dubbed as the ASG's "retrieval operations."

A military six-by-six truck would deliver the guns along a stretch of highway controlled by the bandits. The soldiers would leave a cache of firearms on the roadside. They would cover it with coconut fronds and banana leaves. Then they'll leave, allowing the Abu Sayyaf to enter the area and get those guns.

Sampang says that the other firearms, especially those used by the group of ASG leader Khadaffy Janjalani, were bought from Malaysia. But the big guns that were always shown on TV last year were old pieces bought from military camps in Zamboanga, he adds.

Indeed, the biggest problem for any military in any war is not just the lack of proper strategy in fighting the enemy. It's the lack of motivation to make peace in an island where peace is cheap--and a stranger.

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