Wild remedies

I suppose pastor Wilde Almeda is now slowly realizing that it takes more than prayers to release the Sulu hostages from the grip of the Abu Sayyaf.  But his ploy, heedless as it is, may not be as harebrained as the idea of granting special powers to the president to solve the Mindanao crisis.

The presence of the prayer warriors in the kidnappers’ camp has at least introduced an unknown and unpredictable element to a situation that the Abu Sayyaf seems to have mastered as a formula.  Like the kidnappers, Wilde’s men appear ready to die.  They are however armed with nothing but good intentions.  They may be annoying but they are not arrogant or threatening.  It would not be easy to kill them. They could pose problems that the Abu Sayyaf has not foreseen.

In contrast, there is nothing in the way the government has handled the situation that the kidnappers have not anticipated.  By sending political negotiators who have their photographs taken as they are locked in courteous and almost affectionate embraces with the leaders of the kidnap gang, the government projects the impression that it is dealing with a worthy ideological group.  This is exactly how a band of cutthroats who abduct innocent people for money would like the government and the media to portray them.  The treatment that the leaders of the Abu Sayyaf have enjoyed has conferred upon their kidnap-for-ransom caper the undeserved romance of a political struggle.

Philippine National Police Chief Gen. Panfilo Lacson is right – this is a job for the police.  Certainly we must tread carefully because of the international implications and the number of foreigners involved.  But why send a Cabinet member to negotiate an agenda with the Abu Sayyaf as if he was the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) dealing with the National Democratic Front (NDF)?

That approach would be appropriate for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) with whom previous administrations have had a history of peace talks.  But whereas we patiently negotiate with the Abu Sayyaf, we send an entire army to destroy the MILF.  Not even Wilde Almeda is guilty of such thoughtlessness.

Money is what the Abu Sayyaf bandits want.  We either give it to them, or we don’t.  If we don’t, then we must allow professionals to plan a rescue operation.  The principal objective is to secure the safety and freedom of the kidnap victims.  Going by past experience with “lost commands” in Mindanao, the government must know that previous kidnap victims were ransomed.  Negotiations were conducted through mediators to ensure the safety of the victims and to haggle over the amount of the ransom.  In almost all instances, ransom was ultimately paid.  It is a testimony to the absence of effective central government authority in Mindanao that the kidnappers often lived freely thereafter to enjoy the fruit of their crime.

The situation that allows such anarchy to happen to this day in Muslim Mindanao cannot be remedied by the “special powers” that advisers of the president seek to give him.  There is a war in Central Mindanao, and bandits roam free in Basilan and Sulu.  Yet, the special powers being sought for the president aim to ban labor strikes, do away with bidding for government contracts, and suspend agrarian reform in certain areas.  Where are these coming from? They look more like special powers to grant special favors to economic bandits than measures to establish peace and order in a historically contested zone.

The bishops are right.  We cannot hope to end the war in Mindanao until we come to terms with the Moro people’s aspiration to self-determination.  Whether this will take the form of an autonomous region or an independent state must be decided by painstaking negotiation and dialogue, not by a military solution.

The government argues that past peace talks were futile and only gave time to the rebels to consolidate their position. The military offensive is only a first step.  The next step is economic development, for which it precisely seeks emergency powers.

The word “development” is sweet to the senses.  It muffles the sound of gunfire and neutralizes the scent of death.  But nothing can be more foolish than a government that promises to rebuild while it is busy destroying.

Wilde Almeda’s prayers may not free the hostages in Sulu nor end the war in Central Mindanao.  But at least their consequences are benign compared to the destruction that Joseph Estrada’s war has brought upon this hapless island.  So many Mindanaoans have been driven out of their homes and farms.  What has the war accomplished?  Our soldiers have destroyed the MILF camps, but the Moros are rebuilding them in their hearts.  Do we call that victory?

The government does not need emergency powers as much as it needs brainpower.  It doesn’t take much brainpower to realize that no social order anywhere can be maintained by the permanent presence of soldiers.  A social order requires legitimacy in order to enforce its authority in the long term.  That legitimacy can only come from living communities and cultures, not from triumphant armies and markets.


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