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SEPTEMBER 15, 2000 VOL. 26 NO. 36 | SEARCH ASIAWEEK

Lucrative Business
A two-pronged approach to end the tragic farce of hostage-taking

ALSO
The Real Dopes: Whatever the rhetoric, sports drugging may be unstoppable

Another day, another hostage. Kidnapping has become a way of life for the southern Philippines' Abu Sayyaf rebels — and a lucrative one at that. For years, the Muslim separatists have been quietly abducting locals, who are then released after paying their "room and board." This year, though, the guerrillas finally grabbed international attention by nabbing 21 vacationers from the disputed Malaysian island resort of Sipadan, all but two of them foreigners. Three French journalists covering the story were also captured. The latest victim is American Jeffrey Schilling, who apparently came with free delivery. Schilling, a Muslim, reportedly went with his Filipino wife to visit a separate Abu Sayyaf faction, hoping to broker an arms deal. When the meeting was over, his hosts insisted that he stay — indefinitely.

The whole thing has become a tragic farce. The European and Malaysian governments, which rejected all notions of a rescue operation, have paid between $5 million and $12 million for the release of all but six hostages. In an ironic twist, Germany, France, Finland and South Africa enlisted the mediation efforts of Libyan leader Muammar Gadaffi, who has in the past funded Abu Sayyaf. The rebels have promised to free the remaining European captives soon. But they now reportedly want $10 million for Schilling, reasoning that "one American is worth ten Europeans." Apparently, they were either unaware of, or did not care about, Philippine starlet Marinella Moran's offer of a "week of pleasure" in exchange for the release of the remaining captives.

The guerrillas have grown cocky, and why not? So far, their thuggery is paying off nicely. The hostage-taking industry has brought so many dollars into the southern Philippines that local jewelry shops are experiencing a mini-boom. More ominously, the money has helped Abu Sayyaf gain influence. Its ranks have doubled to around 2,000, according to intelligence estimates, and it is better armed than ever. Authorities were unable to tame the radical fringe group even when it was poorer and weaker. Now if they want to end the violence, they will face a more formidable opponent.

The international community can learn a thing or two by watching the behavior of the average lab rat. The rodents figure out early on that if they press a certain lever, they will receive food. Hit the button, pellets rain down. Take a hostage, cash pours in. Clearly, Abu Sayyaf has worked out which button to push. Negotiators must now do their own learning: that it does not pay to play with terrorists.

Military options must be considered. There is no point in waiting for the last hostage to be released because that will not happen so long as the rebels need a human shield. Of course, no government wants its citizens put in harm's way. The deaths of four local hostages during a Philippine armed forces raid in April to free teachers and schoolchildren being held at Abu Sayyaf's Basilan headquarters showed all too clearly just how valid those concerns are. But the army was able to free most of the hostages, destroy the rebel base, rid Basilan of Abu Sayyaf and reassert control. Giving in would have put more lives at risk by encouraging further kidnapping.

The United States, with its tough stance on terrorism, is likely to be sympathetic to that approach. In fact, Washington may be tempted to send in its own crack teams — an impulse it should resist in favor of providing intelligence, training and weapons to local troops. Mindanao is particularly nationalistic and insular, and the Muslim separatist cause is basically an anti-colonial struggle. Any sign of an "invasion" by U.S. forces could further inflame local people against the government.

To minimize future kidnappings, Southeast Asian countries should coordinate marine patrols and increase their numbers. Indonesia and the Philippines have immensely long coastlines, making their waters especially difficult to guard against pirates, drug traffickers, gunrunners and other criminals. Sipadan is no stranger to bandits and its security since the Asian financial crisis has been notably lax for a holiday resort. Tourists must be aware of the dangers of visiting remote destinations and seriously weigh the risks before setting out.

Kuala Lumpur must be mindful of the folly of engaging terrorists. In the past, it has allegedly given sanctuary to Filipino Muslim fugitives in the name of religious solidarity. The Moro National Liberation Front and many commanders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front were reportedly trained in Malaysia. And Philippine military intelligence charges that Malaysian elements helped fund and perhaps plan the Sipadan kidnappings. When Philippine President Joseph Estrada and Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad meet during the APEC summit in November, they should find ways to boost cooperation against piracy, banditry and drug trafficking. Also needed: joint police action and intelligence sharing.

Ultimately, though, the Philippines must address the legitimate development issues in its southern provinces. They are the nation's poorest region, and poverty is the most fertile breeding ground of political discontent. The unrest won't stop until the root causes of destitution are attacked. The answer lies not in an all-out war on the uprising, however popular that may be in key parts of the country. Free the hostages, then get on with winning back the disenfranchised.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@web.asiaweek.com

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