The story is told that in Basilan public school teachers know more or less when the dreaded Abu Sayyaf would strike again.  The older boys in their classes suddenly disappear at the same time.  These schoolboys, meek pupils a good part of the year, are the bandit group’s reserve army, trained to become fighters for an idea bigger than them.

There is a thin line dividing banditry from revolutionary activity.  Both are crimes in the State’s eyes.  Their perpetrators take the law in their own hands, dispense their own brand of justice, kill people and seize property. Plain bandits however don’t acknowledge any public accountability for what they do.  They don’t engage in rhetorical warfare and they have no need for spokesmen.  In contrast, revolutionary groups, especially those with a long ideological tradition, take pains to explain the basis of their actions.

Which one is the Abu Sayyaf?  The government has no other label for them but “bandits.”  That’s a notch lower than “terrorists” in the Philippine military’s vocabulary.  I personally believe that for taking innocent civilians including children as hostages, for killing people who have not offended them in any way, and for raping women they have captured, they deserve to be called bandits.  But definitions seldom capture social phenomena in a precise way.  To treat the Abu Sayyaf as nothing more than plain bandits blinds us to the complex social realities and perceptions from which they derive their contested legitimacy.

It is not difficult to believe that the young Muslims who leave school to join the Abu Sayyaf may be doing so not just for the money or the adventure but for an ideal or a belief.  It also seems quite obvious that the group, with its cargo of hostages, would have a hard time eluding military pursuit if some of the local communities and residents were not somehow protecting them.  I think we must be prepared to see that for all its barbaric methods, the Abu Sayyaf, in the average Islamic mind, may in fact refer to something more lofty than banditry. And that therefore the alternative it poses may not be just to the hegemony of the Philippine State, but also to the futility of the MNLF and MILF projects.

It is easy for us who advocate modern nationhood to feel desperate over our seeming incapacity to get our act together now that we have won a second chance to start afresh.  In May we had to face a backlash from the deposed president’s supporters.  Now the daring raid by the Abu Sayyaf on a secluded idyllic resort in Palawan has scared away foreign tourists and investors we are trying so hard to lure into our country.  Presidential Spokesman Rigoberto Tiglao was correct to say that the bandits have taken hostage not only defenseless human beings but the spirit of the whole nation.

The euphoria of People Power II is gone.  A pervasive gloom has taken its place.  The phenomenon that quickened the nation’s pulse in January has come to a halt.  The visions we had in our heads when we marched to Edsa this year have suddenly come face to face with the enormity of the nation’s accumulated problems.

It is not easy to modernize and strengthen our institutions while we are fighting a war of secession in one part of the country.  We cannot be talking about governance while half of our people, demanding fulfillment of their most basic human needs, threaten to mount their own revolt.  And if we cannot punish those who think of themselves as beyond the reach of the law, one group or other is bound to carry out a vigilante role.

It is a bad time for any government.  Jose Maria Sison, writing from faraway Netherlands, observes that “The socio-economic and political crisis of the ruling system is exceedingly favorable for pursuing the people’s war for national liberation and democracy.” One wishes that, beyond justifying the killing of Rodolfo Aguinaldo for his “blood debts” and threatening to launch a full-scale people’s war, Sison would come forward with practicable proposals for solving the nation’s problems.

What the Macapagal-Arroyo government is trying to do is keep the ship afloat even as it tries to plug the holes created by past neglect, unmitigated plunder, unresolved conflicts, and outright oppression. Our nation is an old ship, waiting to be refitted for distant and more ambitious voyages in the open sea.  Massive repairs cannot be done because old debts incurred by previous administrations need to be repaid, and the burden must yet again be passed on to those who least benefited from previous borrowings.  The threat of a mutiny from below looms constantly, while an unrepentant elite continues to act indifferently.

This is a time for alternatives.  The Marcos authoritarian project in the 1970s imploded from the weight of its own corruption. The elitist project of Ramos, Aquino, and now of Arroyo, which focuses on governance and modernization, tends to underestimate the urgency and gravity of poverty and marginalization.  On the other hand, the populist sultanate of Estrada was simply incapable of governing and leading a nation under modern circumstances. Some military officers may be dreaming of a social order managed by patriotic reformist soldiers.  Do they believe that a nation like ours, given the peculiarity of its own development, can be run by a military junta?  The same can be asked of those who seek political shortcuts.

Men make history, Marx said, but they must do so under circumstances not chosen by themselves.


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