September 02, 2016 at 12:01 am
President Rodrigo Duterte has started a new war, this time against the Abu Sayyaf bandit group in Sulu and Basilan. And, like the war against illegal drugs, this one is long overdue.
More than 5,000 troops have been deployed to destroy the Abu Sayyaf in the two island provinces, which are their traditional strongholds. If the buildup continues and the military is allowed to continue operating, there is simply no way that the bandits—who have long embarrassed the entire country because of their lucrative, decades-long kidnap-for-ransom cottage industry and their brutal methods of execution—will win this war.
It is a campaign that Duterte has long been itching to start, I think. But first, he made sure that the leaders of the two main Muslim rebel groups—the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Moro National Liberation Front —were willing to talk peace, thus isolating the Abu Sayyaf bandits.
Initially, Duterte even attempted to reach out to the bandits, saying he could “not call them criminals.” In early July, Duterte said the “failed promises” of previous governments drove the Abu Sayyaf to “desperation.”
But the bandit group probably thought Duterte’s statements meant that they could continue kidnapping people and holding them for ransom—and beheading their captives if the cash was not forthcoming. And when the bandits acted like it was business as usual, beheading three captives in quick succession (two foreigners and a teenager who was the son of a local court stenographer), Duterte found an opportunity to call for their extermination.
Last week, Duterte vowed to neutralize the bandit group in just a week. After some success against the Abu Sayyaf over the weekend, the bandits struck back, killing 15 government troops; the war was finally underway.
Meanwhile, because of the ongoing peace overtures between the Duterte government and the MILF and the MNLF, the main Muslim rebel groups have effectively been prevented from joining the war against the Abu Sayyaf. So far, not even the usual anti-Duterte politicians and groups have been demanding that the President ratchet down the rhetoric or hold back on the operations of the military in areas where the bandits operate.
Many have suspected that previous governments in Manila have not really sought to end the Abu Sayyaf’s reign of terror. Perhaps because the central government was afraid of spreading the Muslim rebellion to areas outside of Sulu and Basilan and Central Mindanao, the Abu Sayyaf have never really been hunted down like Duterte wants them hunted down.
The military has long believed that the Abu Sayyaf, despite their fearsome reputation, are not that formidable a foe. The strength of the bandit group, by the most generous estimates, has never been more than a couple of hundred, not counting the civilians to whom they give some of the ransom they collect, a la Robin Hood, so that they may freely mingle with and hide among the local population.
The advantages of the bandits, apart from the protection given by the people living in Sulu and Basilan, have always been their knowledge of the territory and their lack of hesitation to use beheadings in order to sow terror. But no one believes that the bandits will win a protracted battle with the military, if the Manila government is really hell-bent on pursuing them.
Of course, as in any military campaign, there are going to be casualties on the government side, as well. And when the body count starts to rise, the politicians and the human-rights busybodies can be expected to raise a hue and cry.
But right now, the Armed Forces of the Philippines seems to relish the opportunity to engage the Abu Sayyaf in battle, if only because they have never really been given unequivocal orders to exterminate the bandit group. I think the citizenry, especially those tired of explaining to people in other countries that the Abu Sayyaf bandits are a bloodthirsty, money-grubbing aberration who operate in the faraway fringes of the country —and sane, civilized society—should support our troops in this battle.
It would be a shame if our soldiers are not allowed to complete the job of removing the Abu Sayyaf from the face of the earth, just like they dispatched their kidnap victims for their failure to produce enough money to make the bandits happy. When (not if) the Abu Sayyaf are neutralized, the Philippines will certainly be a safer, more progressive place.
* * *
Of course, a military solution to the problem of the Abu Sayyaf will not mean that similar groups will not follow in their bloodstained footsteps. At heart, the problem of banditry in the two impoverished provinces where the group currently operates is economic.
Unless these far-flung communities also feel the benefits of progress by securing jobs, housing, education and other necessities that their fellow citizens enjoy and often take for granted, the problem of the Abu Sayyaf will continue. This is why poverty-alleviation programs, like the planned multi-billion-peso investment in ports, power plants and other infrastructure for Basilan province that diversified conglomerate San Miguel Corp. unveiled recently, should go hand-in-hand with military operations to give the Abu Sayyaf a taste of its own medicine.
In the meantime, we should all unite to end the bloody banditry of the Abu Sayyaf, by supporting our troops and praying for their victory. Right now, it’s the least we can do.