Army soldiers scan a hinterland village in Mindanao with rifle scope and Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels patrol a community in the restive region. (Mindanao Examiner Photo)
ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines (Mindanao Examiner / Jan. 15, 2011) – Philippine security forces continue to battle terrorist groups and Moro rebels in southern island of Mindanao where kidnappings-for-ransom still posed a serious threat not only to traders, but to ordinary citizens as well.
Homegrown militant group Abu Sayyaf and Indonesian terrorist Jemaah Islamiya remain the focus of continued military and police actions in the restive region.
On Christmas day, Abu Sayyaf militants detonated an improvised explosive planted on a Catholic church in the town of Jolo, injuring 10 worshippers, including a priest. The town was also the scene of Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiya attacks in recent years that left dozens of civilians dead and wounded.
Aside from the Abu Sayyaf, renegade members of the Moro National Liberation Front have attacked military targets and in the past had killed two U.S. Special Forces soldiers aiding local troops in combat operation in Sulu province.
Just this month, Abu Sayyaf militants killed five bedding merchants in an ambush in the troubled province of Basilan where the group tied to al-Qaeda had kidnapped at least five people, including a Filipino-Chinese resort and restaurant owner, and attacked civilians and soldiers in recent months. Another group is also holding a Filipino-Chinese hardware store owner in Cotabato City in Maguindanao provinces. A young woman was also kidnapped from their home in Zamboanga City last month.
Basilan is one of five provinces under the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao which comprises of Maguindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Lanao del Sur.
Bishop Martin Jumoad said Basilan is under a state of lawlessness because of the unabated killings and kidnappings of innocent people and called on the military authorities to quickly act on the deteriorating peace and order in the province.
And the perennial absences of municipal and provincial officials and neglect of the regional government aggravated the already alarming situation in Basilan.
But the military said the threats posed by the Abu Sayyaf and Moro rebels is slowly diminishing and that there were fewer attacks the past three years because of a strong mechanism and peace and development programs of the government in areas where there are security problems.
“We are working hard to contain terrorism and the military is closely working with the police to address the kidnapping problems in Mindanao, at least in the western part of the region,” said Army Lieutenant Colonel Randolph Cabangbang, a spokesman for the Western Mindanao Command.
However, he said the slow justice system in the country have made it difficult for authorities to fast track the prosecution of captured terrorists and rebels. “We should be able to stop kidnappings and terrorism only if we are fast in prosecuting those behind these heinous crimes,” he said.
Cabangbang said local government officials should also play an active role in preventing kidnappings and terrorism in their areas. “Maintaining peace and order is not solely to the military. The role of the local government officials is important in preventing crimes and also the participation and cooperation of the civilians,” he said.
The Abu Sayyaf is notorious for kidnapping foreigners and wealthy Chinese and Filipino traders not only in Basilan, but other parts of Mindanao and most of the ransoms it get are mainly use for the purchase of weapons and funding future terror attacks in the region.
In 2001, the group kidnapped 21 mostly Western holidaymakers at a posh resort in Sabah in Malaysia and brought them to Sulu where they had been ransomed off to Libya for millions of dollars. The militants also raided a resort in Palawan province in the Philippines and kidnapped Filipino and American tourists and eventually killing two of the foreigners and some local hostages.
But nothing has changed. Kidnappings remain unabated in Mindanao.
Philippines police chief Raul Bacalzo admitted the rising cases of kidnappings in Mindanao and said they will deploy special task force in the region to deal with the menacing problems.
The Movement for Restoration of Peace and Order said it recorded 56 kidnapping cases for the first six months of 2010 and most of the victims were from Mindanao.
Teresita Ang See, of the Movement for Restoration and Order, said the recent kidnappings in Mindanao were causing panic among business owners and that people there were getting demoralized.
And all these added up to the insurgency problems posed by Muslim and communist rebels who are fighting for the establishment of their own separate state in the largely Christian region which is also home to various ethnic and indigenous groups.
Six months into his presidency, former senator Benigno Aquino III who won a popular election last year, vowed to resolve the insurgency problems and has opened separate peace talks with the Communist Party of the Philippines and its armed wing, the New People’s Army; and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
However, despite this, bloody fighting between troops and communist rebels is still going in many parts of Mindanao. And although the MILF has signed a truce accord with Manila in 2001, some of its hardcore leaders allied with the Jemaah Islamiya had been linked by authorities to the spate of terrorism in the volatile region.
Just recently, Bloomberg reported that the Philippines has overtaken Indonesia and Thailand as the country facing the greatest threat from terrorism. Citing reports by FTI-International Risk, the leading risk mitigation organization in Asia, it said while the Philippines has made progress in containing the threat from armed groups such as the Abu Sayyaf, Moro Islamic Liberation Front and New Peoples’ Army, it lagged behind other countries in the region.
“Pakistan, southern Thailand and southern Philippines are the places where, unless you have a very compelling reason, you should not be going without professional support,” FTI-International Risk’s Chairman Steve Vickers told Bloomberg.
It said the U.S. State Department renewed its travel warning for the Philippines on November 2, citing an October bus bombing that killed 10 people and warning attacks could extend to include Manila.
The Philippines ranks 130 out of 149 countries in the 2010 Global Peace Index compiled by the Sydney-based Institute of Economics & Peace. Thailand ranked 124, and Pakistan 145, Bloomberg reported. (Mindanao Examiner)