On the brink of a breakdown

Coming in the wake of a bungled hostage situation in Pasay City, the death of Martin Burnham and Ediborah Yap, two of the last three hostages held by the Abu Sayyaf, during a rescue operation will likely provoke mocking comparisons between Pasay policemen and Army Rangers.

It is the worst time for such tragedies to happen, when our faith in the capacity of our law and order agencies to do their work and protect the public is at its lowest. The demoralization and cynicism we feel incite us to heckle and joke about politicians, policemen and soldiers rather than to understand and plan how we could better handle such situations in the future. In our despair, we tend to see incompetence, lack of training or sheer stupidity behind every botched job, forgetting that these are functions of the quality of our institutions.

The Pasay incident was totally inexcusable.  The hostage-taker was a psychologically disturbed person.  He was clearly reacting to hallucinations.  The situation called for alertness and sensitivity on the part of the police so as to protect the victim while minimizing possible injury to the hostage-taker himself.  Needless to say, the safety of the victim was paramount.  The police acted indecisively. They followed no clear plan, and, worse, allowed kibitzers to intervene.  They simply had no clue about what to do.

The case of the Basilan hostages was different.  The military has been attempting to rescue them for over a year.  The lives of many soldiers have been lost in the process.  The government committed itself to a no-ransom policy, thus closing the avenue for any negotiation. The safe rescue of the hostages was from the start a primary consideration, but as Basilan became an official front in the global war against terrorism, the principal objective of the military increasingly became the pursuit and capture of these ruthless terrorists.

The relatives of the Burnham couple and of Ediborah Yap knew that the hostages could be killed in the process.  But part of the reason why this incident dragged on in the first place was due to the overriding concern for the safety of the two American hostages.  The Abu Sayyaf kidnappers were aware of this limitation and they fully exploited the fear they sowed.  Until the last minute, they confidently awaited the payment of ransom.

The Army Rangers who pursued the Abu Sayyaf through the jungles of Zamboanga del Norte appear to have acted resolutely and correctly.  From the reports, one can glean that they were not at first completely certain that the armed group they had been tracking for a day were Abu Sayyaf.  They were in an area near a Moro Islamic Liberation Front camp.  The Rangers became absolutely certain only 2 hours before the actual encounter and only after sighting the American hostages with the group.  That was when they opened fire.

They could have waited for reinforcement. They could have stalled until they have surrounded the group and forced them to surrender. They did not do any of these because they were clear about their orders.  They would take care not to hit the hostages, but their orders were to get the Abu Sayyaf.  They would not wait for an ideal situation to arise.  The last time they hesitated in Lamitan, the military was accused of allowing the bandits to escape in exchange for money.

It is very sad that Martin Burnham and Ediborah Yap did not emerge from this ordeal alive.  The terrain must have been tough and the conditions extremely difficult.  Gracia Burnham got hit in the crossfire, but fortunately the wound was not fatal and she was rescued. Several soldiers were seriously wounded, while four of the Abu Sayyaf group were killed. The notorious Abu Sabaya and Isnilo Hapilon sneaked away together with most of their members.

This is the first real encounter between the military and the main Abu Sayyaf group after the Lamitan hospital fiasco a year ago.  The Filipino public has grown weary of the manner in which the government has been handling the hostage crisis. The entry of US Special Forces into Basilan, albeit supposedly in a non-combat role, served to reinforce the undeserved reputation of the Abu Sayyaf as a major terrorist group.  No one could offer a convincing explanation why, despite the sophisticated equipment brought in by the US military and the number of soldiers searching for them, the exact location of the bandits and their hostages could not be pinpointed.

But this is not the time to look back to what actually happened.  From here on, the military should focus on what it needs to do or what it should have set out to do after Libyan money secured the release of the Sipadan hostages.  And that is, to finish off the remaining Abu Sayyaf before they could re-group, buy new equipment and weapons, and take a fresh set of hostages.

The whole of our society is going through a wrenching transition, and we simply cannot afford to be complacent.  The problems of our military and police are but symptoms of the comprehensive failure of our social system to cope with the recurrent crises of our times.  With the growing accessibility of various criminal groups to modern technology and weapons, the risks and costs of system failure are greatly multiplied.

Now is the time to review the whole system and, more important, to execute the changes that are needed to repair its basic defects.  The prospects of a society held hostage by a savage gang of postmodern bandits, or controlled by drug money, are real enough to make us weep over the silly games our leaders play while the nation totters on the brink of a breakdown.


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