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Your Money or Your Life: Kidnapping Philippines Style

28 June 2001
Index to Pearl of the Orient Seas by Clarence Henderson

The hot topic in Manila nowadays is the security situation - or perhaps the "insecurity situation" would be a better term? The combination of the Abu Sayyaf's shenanigans down south and the (apparently) escalating rates of kidnapping-for-ransom here in Manila has given a lot of folks the jitters.

So what's really happening security-wise in the Philippines right now? I won't pretend to provide in-depth analysis of a topic on which I am by no means an expert. However, following are a few random thoughts drawn from Makati coffee shop tsismis (gossip), word on the street, and my own seemingly unavoidable bent towards quasi-erudite academic trivia. And presented with my usual blend of randomness and free association. Caveat emptor, as they say.

The Muslims

The Philippines is an ethnically diverse nation. One should bear in mind that GMA is hardly the first President to pull her hair out over the Muslim "problem". The Americans and Spanish both had difficulties understanding and controlling the Muslims (see An Oversimplified History Lesson). Islam first came to the southern Islands of the archipelago courtesy of Arab traders sometime in the 15th century, and has been part of the fabric of this place ever since. Large portions of Mindanao and the Sulu and Tawi-Tawi archipelago are predominantly Muslim. At least 10 other provinces have their own Imams, and there are about half a million Muslims right here in Metro Manila. Shortly after World II, the Philippines government began encouraging Christians to settle in Mindadano, and there has been open if sporadic conflict in the region since the early 1970's.

One of the confusing things for the casual observer is to sort out just who is who. Here are thumbnails of the three main groups:

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the "grandaddy" of Islamic separatist groups in the Philippines, had high visibility in the early 1990s, with an estimated 15,000 heavily armed troops. The MNLF was led by Nur Misuari, who had studied in the Middle East. The MNLF's negotiated settlement with the Ramos administration (1996) led to the creation of the ARMM (Autonomous Regions of Muslim Mindanao), of which Misuari was promptly elected governor.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF): Until the emergence of Abu Sayyaf, the MILF was the most violent of the Islamic anti-government groups. The MILF was probably behind last year's mall bombings in Manila, and explicitly claimed responsibility for bombing the Philippine ambassy in Jakarta. MILF forces are believed strongest in Lanao del Norte, Lanao del Sur, Maguindanao, and North Cotabato. The MILF has just reached a negotiated settlement with the Philippines government, and the administration would like nothing better than to figure out a way to leverage the new "relationship" and use it against the Abus.

Abu Sayyaf: Although still relatively small, this group is the one that's got everybody worried. Heavily armed thanks to scads of ransom money, the Abus are having no problem getting new recruits in poverty-stricken Mindanao. They also have the Philippine military significantly outgunned and outequipped. The group was formed by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani, an Islamic scholar who had received military training in Libya and fought in Afghanistan; after he was killed in 1998, his younger brother Khaddafi took over the reins. Abu Sayyaf, more or less openly supported by Libya and (less openly) by certain other Middle Eastern regimes, was responsible for last years' kidnappings on Basilan and, of course, for the current kidnapping crisis. Although GMA keeps promising to crush them, don't hold your breath.

Poverty and the Mobilizing Power of Religion

In order to understand what's going on, you also have to take into account the context of extreme poverty that shapes the lives of most Islamic Filipinos. The Philippines is a poor country, and the poorest regions - the places where people live from hand to mouth, have no medical care, and where children go to bed hungry more often than not - are precisely the areas of Mindanao and surrounding islands the Abu Sayyaf call home.

It is not uncommon in such a situation for religion (in this case Islam) to provide a mobilizing ideology and powerful rationale for collective action. Historical parallels can be seen in Indonesia, Burma, and Malaysia, to name only a few. Islam was the banner under which millions of diverse Muslims came together in Indonesia under the banner of Sarekat Islam. And of course there are many examples in the Middle East, including Algeria and Egypt (Nasser often referred to his "Army of God"). For many, if not most, poor Muslim Filipinos, Islam provides far more of a unifying force than abstract appeals to Philippine nationalism or democracy.

Personal note: I became aware of the power of Islam two decades or so ago during a conference at the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations in Binghampton, New York. I had made the relatively short journey down from Cornell to draw on the wisdom of Immanuel Wallerstein, whose "world systems theory" was, at the time, making quite a splash among left-leaning academics ( which, I must confess, I almost became). I was hosting a visiting scholar who just happened to be a well-known radical who was at the time in exile from Malaysia, which wasn't particularly tolerant of his political inclinations or rhetoric.

Although I had already been impressed by the power of his intellect and bona fide revolutionary credentials, I was amazed by how devout he was and by how seriously he took his mission in life. His religious rituals were systematic, including assiduous cleansing before prayer, beginning with "Bismillah" ("In the Name of Allah"), then washing his wrists three times, rinsing out his mouth with water, cleansing his nostrils by sniffing water, and so forth, always in unwavering order. He prayed religiously five times a day on his little prayer mat, as I discovered when he woke me up every morning at the crack of dawn. In some of our discussions later he made it very clear that his life was not at all important in the broader scheme of things, certainly not as compared to the overarching goal of creating an Islamic Republic in his homeland.

The Chinese-Filipino Kidnappings

The administration needed last week's abduction of University of the Philippines student Mary Grace Cheng-Ragasa like it did a hole in the head. Ms. Ragasa is the daugher of a plastic and foam products manufacturer who just happens to be associated with a prominent opposition figure. The father, who reportedly suffered a cardiac episode in the process, promptly paid anywhere from 10 to 50 million pesos (the latter figure representing US $1 million), depending on whose reports you want to believe.

The Ragasa incident was just the most recent in an escalating series of kipnaps-for-ransom. In 1990 there were only 10 reported kidnappings, but by the mid-1990s more than a hundred a year were reported. That's a significant underestimate given that many of the primarily Chinese victims keep their trauma to themselves, due to fear of the authorities, social embarrassment, or anxiety about repeating the experience. Given the existing evidence of possible army and/or police involvement in kidnap gangs, such reticence is understandable.

Historical context and sociological gloss: According to Max Weber, the state is the institution with a legitimate monopoly over the use of force. In the Philippines, however, the state has historically also had some pretty serious control over the illegitimate use of force as well. Well before the days of martial law, regional politicians in the Philippines coopted the local crooks to create warlord gangs involved in gambling, prostitution, protection, and other rackets (see Cronies and Booty Capitalism). For a recent example, refer to Chavit Singson.

During the Marcos years, there was a massive expansion in the power of the military and police. By the early 1980's, many officers realized that their monopoly control of loyal forces and firepower could be turned to entrepreneurial endeavors. Specifically, they began kidnapping rich Chinese for ransom, covert operations that became increasingly organized and businesslike during the Aquino administration. These activities became quite sophisticated, including obtaining inside information from banks about net worth and knowing which families were holding large sums of cash and which families took the greatest pride in never having paid a centavo in taxes.

The army- and police-associated operations also became less tolerant of your average two-bit kidnapping gangs. In several cases, freelance kidnapping gangs were quickly and effectively exterminated. The best known example was that of the liquidation of the Kuratong Baleleng Gang, apparently perpetrated by certain elite security units under the control of none other than Ping Lacson (ex-head of the Philippine National Police and now opposition Senator).

So . . . ?

I was representing a client the other day at an exhibitor's briefing for a trade show. The show, known as e-Services Philippines and sponsored by the Department of Trade and Industry, has over a hundred local exhibitors drawn from telecoms, IT, and technopreneur firms hoping to strut their stuff before an expected crowd of potential international investors and outsourcers. The promotional video was first rate and the fact that there was a waiting list for booth space suggests that the government is doing something right in its quest to attract foreign capital through the IT door.

The bad news, however, is that the turnout of bona fide foreign investors will probably be less than hoped. The mood was significantly dampened by the announcement that a trade delegation of Singaporean businessmen had just cancelled and wouldn't be coming to the show. Part of a trade and investments mission organized by the Philippine-Singapore Business Council, their decision came in the wake of front page stories in the Manila papers last week about how Singaporeans are now major kidnap targets. Bill Luz of the Makati Business Club was quick to issue a statement that the cancellation was just about scheduling and had nothing to do with security. Yeah, right.

Similarly, recent media reports of Chinese businessmen and executives being nabbed by kidnap-by-ransom gangs has spooked a group of Taiwanese businessmen who were supposed to be here in early July for a confab organized by the the Taiwan-Philippines Business Council. Rumor has it that Trade Secretary Mar Roxas has been burning up the phone lines to Taipei trying to convince them to come, but to relatively little avail. DTI keeps issuing reassuring statements to the press that the head of the delegation is telling Taiwanese businessmen that all is copacetic in the RP and that peace and order does indeed exist.

One also hears unconfirmed reports that Filipino-Chinese businessmen are purchasing lots of greenbacks and other foreign currencies in preparation for hightailing it out of the country. However, according to Dante Go, President of the Chinese-Filipino Business Club (CFBC), that is not the case and there is, as of yet, no significant capital flight. GMA is calling on the Chinese-Filipino business community to avoid panic and not to spend all their money on more armored cars, machine guns, and goons. But the Chinese-Filipino community remains skeptical of the administration.

GMA recently announced the formation of the National Anti-Crime Council (NACC), headed by the (competent and ethical) Justice Secretary Hernando Perez. Mr. Go praised this move, but also pointed out (correctly) that without sufficient funding and operational support, results were likely to be disappointing.

With regard to the outcome of the Abu Sayyaf standoff, your guess is as good as mine. GMA's style (which might be referred to as "kick ass and ask questions later") could eventually backfire. Indeed, some of the folks down at the American Embassy on Roxas Boulevard (and, one can presume, their stateside counterparts) aren't all that thrilled with the way GMA is handling the situation. The John Wayne-with-guns-blazing bit works pretty well in old movies, but right now it seems to be putting the hostages' lives at maximum risk and closing off important options. Sure, it's a difficult situation and, sure, GMA's leadership is infinitely better than Jose Velarde. But still...

...from Clarence Henderson's Pearl of the Orient Seas

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Clarence Henderson Henderson Consulting International Manila Philippines

Clarence has had over 20 years of consulting experience in New York, Los Angeles, and the Philippines. He brings to the forum many years of experience in the Philippines and his monthly column integrates the experience of working in the Philippines with business tips earned the hard way! You can learn more about Clarence by clicking on his photo. Clarence Henderson: Manila, Philippines Index - Sources - About Clarence - Other Columnists

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