Time for toughness

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 June, 2001, 12:00am

When Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo became President of the Philippines, she knew her disgraced predecessor had left behind enormous problems. But Mrs Arroyo had economics at the top of her list - not the life-and-death issue of violent criminals who kidnap for cash while claiming to represent a noble political cause.

Yet that is precisely what absorbs so much of her time these days. The Abu Sayyaf rebels - 'Bearer of the Sword' in Arabic - portray themselves as freedom fighters who seek independence for the Philippines' southern islands, where Muslims are in the majority. They were founded by an Islamic scholar who learned his tactics in the Afghanistan war, and have been killing and kidnapping since 1991.

But since this founder died in a 1998 gunfight, the group has become less political and more commercial - thriving from the deadly but profitable business of seizing hostages and ransoming survivors. Reluctant Manila governments have acquiesced, partly due to pressure from other nations which want their own citizens returned safely. In turn, this finances faster boats and better weapons for the Abu Sayyaf, and gains new recruits, making it increasingly difficult for Manila's inept forces to suppress the banditry.

Thus, Mrs Arroyo faces a dilemma shared by many governments around the world. She could attack the kidnappers, with no guarantee of success but knowing that some of the 25 current hostages, including three Americans, will die. (The gang already claims to have beheaded one American to warn against further attacks.) Or she could buy them off, knowing they would return someday with even greater effectiveness.

Huge profits make this a global concern; in some cases, the Abu Sayyaf reportedly has collected US$1 million per captive. In Colombia last year, 3,706 people - including 22 foreigners - were seized for ransom, and it is a growing problem elsewhere, including in at least eight other Latin American nations.

As one US expert notes: 'The possibility of substantial remuneration . . . attracts the most basic thugs . . . you do not know what is going on in their minds and they may be itchier with the trigger finger.'

Many governments, including the US, warn against payoffs, arguing they merely lure others into the game. But a tough stand can bring death to the hostages and no one wants to be the sacrificial lamb, or see friends and relatives in that role. A hard-nosed policy is easiest for those who live far away and are disengaged from the case at hand.

Yet successive Manila governments have sought the soft way out, only to see the problem grow worse. Mrs Arroyo seems an unlikely warrior, but she has little choice but to proclaim a tough policy and stick with it.