AFTER being held captive by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) for six months, German couple Stefan Okonek and Henrike Dielen were finally freed last weekend. Unfortunately, at least 11 more hostages of the kidnap-for-ransom group are yet to be rescued. Because of its continued kidnapping of foreigners and holding them hostage in southern Mindanao, the Philippines continues to suffer the consequences, even long after those foreigners are released.
News about people being held hostage by the ASG has become too common. We have already lost count on how many kidnappings have taken place in the islands of Sulu, Basilan and Tawi-Tawi. Underreported by the media are similar abductions in nearby Sabah, with the kidnappers bringing their captives to Mindanao. And who can forget the embarrassment the country felt when tourists in world-renowned Malaysian island of Sipadan were taken hostage in April 2000?
The obvious victims
THE trauma the captives felt will stay with them as long as they live. Their fears will not disappear, and there is no compensation large or retribution strong enough to heal the wounds inflicted on the hearts of the relatives of those hostages who were brutally murdered.
The months the kidnapped lost to their ordeal would never be recovered. The opportunity to enjoy a simple vacation, to practice their professions or become involved in their advocacies (bird-watching, caring for the health of rural folk, administrating aid, teaching or preaching), was ruined. It is certain that they would never go back to the forsaken islands and jungles they were once held in. Understandably, they might even try to forget our entire country. The physical abuses, rapes, psychological torture and demands of ransom would keep haunting the kidnapped and their relatives.
The bigger victim
THE Philippines is actually the bigger victim of all these kidnappings. The damages these inflicted on the entire nation are immense, even immeasurable.
The first damage is the one done to our tourism industry. Many foreigners would definitely not prioritize the Philippines as a tourist destination. To them, the entire archipelago is too risky to spend a vacation in with their families or friends. No amount of the talent and managerial skills of Tourism Secretary Ramon R. Jimenez Jr. could overcome the negative publicity that such abductions generate. Despite that, the former advertising guru and his entire team are doing an excellent job. The number of tourist arrivals in the country is significantly improving. But imagine if Jimenez and his team were not confronted with the challenge that kidnappings pose. It’s possible that our tourism traffic would be even comparable to that of Malaysia and Thailand. We could beat them in hitting their recorded average of 2-million tourist arrivals a month.
The second is the one inflicted on the country’s investment climate. For investors, ensuring the safety and security of their personnel is of paramount concern. It is unfair and unfortunate that the world mistakenly assumes that remote islands in Mindanao are actually the Philippines. Include this in the list of things that investors must also consider, such as the perceived inconsistencies in our economic policies; the allegedly looming energy crisis; the supposedly rising crime rate in the metropolis; the constitutional limitations on the foreign ownership of companies; and corruption in various government agencies. Looking at all these, investors would probably prefer to build their
businesses in neighboring countries.
And the third is the one impairing our country’s ability, not just the government’s, to stop these kidnappings once and for all. Our people seem to be resigned to the fact that kidnapping groups like the ASG could boldly and violently continue their activities, which they obviously profit from.
Urgent need for solutions
THE government has no choice but to address this crisis. Immediate and long-term solutions to this complicated problem must be clearly formulated and implemented.
The Armed Forces of the Philippines, now in the middle of its modernization program, can provide the chance to control the terrain these kidnappers tread on and allow long-term economic and political solutions to be applied. Under the leadership of new Armed Forces Chief of Staff Gen. Gregorio Pio Catapang Jr., who is a respected Mindanao veteran, troops can be effectively mobilized to pursue these criminals. They can help restore the opportunity for the government to reconstruct our neglected southern territories.
A peaceful and worry-free Mindanao is vital to achieving progress for the entire country. The real hostage in this continuing kidnapping crisis is the entire Philippines. It is now the time to relentlessly and seriously work on regaining its freedom.
Ariel Nepomuceno is the deputy commissioner for the Enforcement Group of the Bureau of Customs.