Negotiating with the Abu Sayyaf

All transactions, including those with bandits like the Abu Sayyaf, are to some degree based on trust.  Ironic as it may seem, a negotiator like Secretary Robert Aventajado finds himself not having much of a choice but to take the word of an outlaw like Commander Robot.  If Robot says he will take $12 million for the 12 remaining foreign hostages, there is really no guarantee that, after the agreed ransom money is delivered, all the foreigners will be freed.

In spite of this, Aventajado is willing to trust Robot.  Robot has to trust him too in order for the negotiations to get anywhere.  Yet, against the minimum foundation of trust that is built, doubt will always persist. The negotiators try to protect themselves against betrayal by stalling and demanding assurances.  These assurances mean nothing in the final analysis, but strangely enough they are given and often taken at their face value.  Such is the reality of negotiating without norms.

The one assurance that the Abu Sayyaf kidnappers cannot demand is that they be allowed to walk like free men in Sulu or anywhere in the country when this is over.  In like manner, the government negotiator cannot tell them to give up banditry and rebellion after they have released their captives.  Beyond these two bottom lines however lies a whole menu of negotiable options.

For example, short of being allowed to walk as free men is the option of an exile to Libya or Iran for the Abu Sayyaf leaders, assuming that these countries are willing to accept them.  How the host nation deals with them later is that nation’s responsibility.  Giving asylum to persons who have committed crimes punishable in every civilized society may be repugnant to an angry public, but it is far less costly and less risky than the diffused violence of a commando-led rescue.

When the idea of asylum for the Abu Sayyaf leaders was first floated, some politicians shot it down on the ground that asylum is not for criminals but for refugees from political or religious persecution. I find this naïve. An asylum is also a form of exile.  I thought the main object of the negotiations was to secure the safe release of the hostages.  That is why the government had agreed to hold off a military and police rescue, and why, despite its avowed no-ransom policy, it has allowed ransom to be paid.  If it was determined to uphold that policy, it could have stopped foreign money from being paid to the kidnappers.  But it chose not to.

The ransom money paid for the release of the German Renate Wallert and the journalist Andreas Lorenz, and later of the Malaysian hostages, has added up to an enormous amount.  Indeed, the police and the military have noted with alarm that part of the loot is being used to recruit more Abu Sayyaf members and to buy new weapons.

In effect we have allowed them to trade kidnap victims for guns. Today the Abu Sayyaf looms as the most menacing armed group in Mindanao.  Is this any better than allowing Robot and his gang to flee Mindanao and walk free in Tripoli?

Four months after the hostage crisis began the eyes of the world media are still upon us.  I think we are now in a situation where, having ruled out a military rescue option, we must swallow our pride, accept foreign help, and exhaust all peaceful means of securing the immediate release of the hostages.  And that includes, to our eternal shame and distress, permitting the Abu Sayyaf to convert their dollars into pesos, freeing two Abu Sayyaf couriers recently arrested by the police in the act of exchanging $240,000 at a government bank in Zamboanga City, and returning the money to them.   As long as his group is holding the hostages, Commander Robot could very well demand that he himself be allowed to change the dollars. We have, in short, worked ourselves into a corner, and now the only thing that would justify a forcible rescue operation is if the hostages are in real danger of being harmed in captivity.

It is obvious that the kidnappers are not going to release the hostages in one go as demanded by President Estrada.  It would be foolish for them to do so, just as it would be foolish for us to refuse the release of even a single hostage.  The Abu Sayyaf bandits have clearly thought this out very well; they will keep some of the foreign hostages and use them as shield as they disappear into their new sanctuaries in the jungle.  It is also clear they are preparing for a protracted pursuit by the police and the military.  When that point is reached, what began as a seemingly simple act of banditry will have progressed into the first stage of a new guerilla war.

Unlike the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Abu Sayyaf has shown that it does not play by conventional rules.  They have learned from the failures of their elders.  They have seen how international pressure works, how instantaneous access to media can be used, and how the entire global community can be held hostage and forced to pay attention to the plight of Mindanao’s Moros.

Our government did not foresee the larger and long-term problem into which the Sipadan hostage crisis could develop.  It did not have a clear idea of its negotiating position, its objectives, its options and its overall strategy.  Flushed with the sensation of victory from its onesided war against the MILF, it underestimated the Abu Sayyaf’s ability to bring its daring escapade to a successful end. The events of the last four months have proven the government wrong.


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