The armed group behind the hostage situation in Sulu tries to disguise its real purpose by throwing in all kinds of cause-oriented sounding demands into the negotiations. The Abu Sayyaf leaders style themselves like rebels with a cause, and some of them may have been, but the incoherence of their demands shows that their objective is nothing more than the payment of ransom money for personal profit. Their enterprise feeds upon, but clearly has nothing to do with, the struggle to redress the historic grievances of the Bangsamoro people. It is a misuse of ideals.
On the other hand, the military assault that the government has launched against the Moro Islamic Liberation Front justifies itself as a defense of national sovereignty. President Estrada sometimes sounds like a born-again patriot who stakes his presidency to preserve every square inch of Philippine territory. But he forgets that the MILF is not an invader coming in from the outside. Mindanao is its homeland. To crush the MILF in the name of the Filipino nation is to ignore the existing communities that have grown under its de facto leadership. To invoke Filipino sovereignty in this war is to behave like a colonial government conducting a pacification campaign among recalcitrant natives. This too is a misuse of ideals.
It is one of the ironies of the present period that the government has tended to bend over-backward in its dealings with the Abu Sayyaf, while it has shown only intolerance and impatience in its attitude towards the MILF. Sometimes it even seems as if it is deliberately confusing the identities of the two groups in the public mind, mobilizing public outrage against the Abu Sayyaf to justify the military campaign against the MILF. This is a dangerous strategy. In the end, the average Filipino will not care to make distinctions between Abu Sayyaf bandits and the Moro people as a whole. Stereotype images are bad enough as they are today; the war has only served to awaken dormant images that fan religious and cultural intolerance among Muslims and Christians.
But the MILF has not been entirely blameless either. For even as it resists the tag of terrorism that the government has unjustly applied to it, it has not said anything critical about the Abu Sayyaf. At times it even seems that it is basking in the international attention that the hostage situation has brought upon Mindanao, unmindful that Abu Sayyaf notoriety could ultimately tarnish its own image as much as that of the whole Bangsamoro people.
What a great boost to MILF legitimacy it would be if only its leader, the pious Hashim Salamat, were to use his moral authority to secure the immediate release of all the hostages without payment of ransom. And what a tremendous gain for the Moro nation as a whole if the Abu Sayyaf decided to heed his appeal. That will be a heroic healing moment that an applauding public will long remember even as it tries to forget the nightmare of the Basilan and Sulu hostages. The goodwill and social trust it will generate will be worth several times more than all the ransom money that the Abu Sayyaf adventurers can ever hope to earn in a lifetime of banditry.
That Nur Misuari and the Moro National Liberation Front, in whose backyard the hostages are being kept, have shown only total helplessness in dealing with the situation has concretely affirmed the tragic decline in their leadership. Hashim Salamat and the MILF are now presented with a historic opportunity to demonstrate the extent of their moral influence in the Bangsamoro community. It is perplexing that they have not seized this occasion to show once and for all the solid basis of their claim to self-government.
According to media reports, the original Abu Sayyaf kidnappers were few in number, but over the last two months they managed to recruit hundreds of followers all salivating at the thought of ransom money. It would have been easy to isolate the kidnappers and cut their links to the surrounding communities if traditional Islamic authority had been asserted at any point in this crisis. Government negotiators are the wrong people to deal with this dangerous situation. The communities do not trust them, and the only language they can use with the Abu Sayyaf is the language of money and concessions. It is amazing that in a place as suffused with customary beliefs and traditional ideals as Mindanao, the authority of Islam has not been invoked or deployed to obtain the freedom of the hostages.
The MILF would be dreaming if it thought that it would have an easy time governing Mindanao once its authority were recognized by the national government. Just as the MNLF has shown its gross inability to consolidate the Bangsamoro community under its leadership, the MILF today is showing by its silence and inaction on the hostage crisis that it may not fare better.
So much is being sacrificed in this bizarre hostage incident in Sulu and the equally bizarre war against the MILF in Central Mindanao. Not the least is the final erosion of what remains of the authority of elders in traditional society. It would take a while before the minimum social trust needed to establish a functioning community could be built again, whether in a liberated or an assimilated Mindanao.
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