SCMP Saturday, June 2, 2001

Curbing kidnapping

If there is a single reason why Abu Sayyaf rebels in the Philippines have grown increasingly bold about kidnapping holidaymakers from isolated beach resorts, it is that they have found it extremely lucrative to do so.
Over the past year or so, the rebel group has extorted millions of dollars of ransom money by kidnapping tourists.
Abu Sayyaf is ostensibly fighting for an independent Muslim homeland in the southern Philippines. In fact, it appears to have turned hostage-taking into a thriving industry.
It is a well-known fact that giving in to the demands of hostage-takers only emboldens them. The reason attacks on tourists and other locals have increased, is that various organisations, including the Libyan Government, have negotiated with the group and paid large amounts of ransom money.
This is why President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's declaration today that there will be no let up in the military operations against the Abu Sayyaf group is to be welcomed.
This is not a risk-free option, as the clashes today demonstrate. At least two soldiers were killed and some of the hostages might have been hurt. As the operations continue, the lives of the hostages will be at increasing risk. But this is clearly something that the Philippine Government has factored into its calculations.
President Arroyo's get-tough policy is something that her predecessor, Joseph Estrada, belatedly began last September, more than six months after Abu Sayyaf staged its boldest raid to date, on a Malaysian diving resort.
While Abu Sayyaf appears to be in the kidnapping business for money more than for any larger cause, this incident does throw focus on the larger problem in Mindanao, a Muslim area in a predominantly Catholic country.
Talks on greater autonomy for Mindanao have achieved little. The Moro National Liberation Front has been talking to the Government since 1996, but with few signs of progress. Another group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, stopped talking to the Government after a ceasefire broke down last July.
It is important that along with a tough line against hostage-taking, the Arroyo Government also vigorously pursues talks with the more moderate groups in Mindanao. A military option alone will not do.