Thu, 11 May 2000

RP hostage crisis

Entering its third week, the hostage crisis in the southern Philippines is not showing any signs of coming to an end. Far from it in fact: the abductors reportedly tried to break through the Philippine military cordon recently, using their captives as human shields.

People in the region have raised their eyebrows at the kidnapping, prompting them to ponder how volatile and uncertain security in Southeast Asia is. The incident also signifies that terrorism and violence still prevail in the region despite the security cooperation among member countries of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

The kidnapping should also be looked upon as a wake-up call to ASEAN members to further enhance their cooperation, not only in the economic and political fields but also in ensuring the safety and security of their citizens.

The affair began on April 23, when Philippine separatist rebels abducted 21 civilians -- nine Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, two Filipinos and a Lebanese -- who were vacationing at the dive resort of Sipadan off the island of Borneo.

Over the past weeks, members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the more militant Abu Sayyaf rebels have stepped up guerrilla activities in their bastions in the Philippine's southern province of Mindanao, aiming to carve out an Islamic state in the predominantly Catholic country.

Abu Sayyaf gunmen were also responsible for the kidnapping of a group of Filipino hostages in Basilan province, most of whom are still being held in the rebels' jungle hideouts.

The Sipadan hostage drama has become an international affair because it involves the safety of a number of nationalities from countries grouped in the European Union. The union has been forced to send its envoy, Javier Solana, to Manila to help end the crisis.

The decision to dispatch Solana, the union's security and foreign policy advisor, indicates that European countries are deeply concerned about the safety of their nationals and that any harm done to them by the rebels could jeopardize the credibility of the Philippine government.

Aware of this risk, the Manila government, while reiterating its unwillingness to pay any ransom for the release of the hostages, has nevertheless shown signs of bending, saying it would consider development aid for the predominantly Muslim provinces in the south.

It is true, as President Joseph Estrada has said, that the kidnapping is purely a Philippine domestic issue. It is also true, however, that terrorism is a global problem that has to be resolved jointly.

An act of terror like taking hostages, irrespective of the motives underlying it, will never be justified by any country that upholds law and order. It therefore has to be firmly dealt with so that similar incidents will not happen in the future.

Even an envoy from Libya, a country once considered to harbor hard-line terrorists, said on Tuesday that Abu Sayyaf militants had committed an inhumane act and violated Islam by holding innocent people hostage.

In the final analysis, the abduction of tourists by whatever group will obviously scare away travelers from the region and adversely affect tourism, one of the major sources of income for most ASEAN member countries.