Friday, July 17, 2009

All out war in Sulu, again.

Rain started pouring hard yesterday and it kept raining all throughout the night.

I lulled my two year old child to sleep as the rain drummed on our tin roof, I held him close to me with both of my arms locked tightly around his chubby little body and felt him slowly drift off to sleep.

My wife, who just arrived less than an hour before from covering the Presidential non-debates in Quiapo, walked into the bedroom to find me cuddling our son and smiled the contented smile that only happy mothers can make.

We talked for a while about the news and then after about an hour or two, fell silent as the pull of sleep took over.

When I woke up this morning and went down from our bedroom to the kitchen to make my first cup of coffee, it dawned on me that the simple everyday things I take for granted are luxuries that other people can only imagine having.

But my thoughts weren't really about being thankful for what I have, my thoughts were about the soldiers in Sulu and the many more who would be boarding ships or planes bound for Sulu. I wondered just how many of them were like me and wished I could meet one of them before they boarded the ship or plane going to Sulu, so that I could at least shake their hand to wish them a safe return.

I remembered the time when I was still a scriptwriter for RTVM (Radio Television Malacanang) when Fidel V. Ramos was our President and revisited the many memories of riding a C-130 bound for Mindanao together with our soldiers. I can't remember any particular soldier, but I remember some of the conversations that began with jokes about durian or tuna and ended with stories about members of their families.

I remembered the discomfort of having to stand in the cargo-hold of the C-130, crammed shoulder to shoulder with our soldiers and having our heads frozen by the air-conditioning while our torsoes dripped with sweat. There were times when our conversations would pause as we shifted our weight from one foot to the other, carefully maneuvering our feet, legs and bodies into another position while taking care not shove a knee in someone's groin or plant an elbow in someone's gut. We shuffled our feet because as soon as one of them left the steel floor of the C-130, we were sure that somebody else's foot would take its place and it would lead to a situation where you'd have to endure standing on just one leg or step on somebody's foot.

Usually, as soon as we landed, my colleagues at RTVM would rejoice and the soldiers who had been with us during the trip would simply file out, carrying their gear. Our hardship usually ended with the C-130 touching down on some airport in Mindanao; in contrast, the hardships of our soldiers were just beginning. There were many times that I looked at them as they filed into formations after disembarking from the C-130 we shared, wishing they were just part of the military contingent that were deployed to augment the rangs of the PSG -- they would be bored by the duty of having to provide additional security for Ramos but at least they would be safe.

Just how many of the soldiers I shared so many C-130 rides with are still alive today, I will never know.

After drinking my first cup of coffee, my thoughts were about the statements that my boss and friend Senator Richard Gordon had made about proposals to offering amnesty and peace to the Abu Sayyaf that kidnapped three ICRC workers earlier this year and had communicated their intent to return to the fold of the law.

Nearly two years ago, we shared a ride on a C-130 bound for Sulu. We were on a mission to pick up fruits from farmers there who were unable to bring their produce to markets in Zamboangga because the military had restricted travel to and from the island province. The idea was to buy the fruits from the farmers of Sulu and have small time fruit vendors as well as large supermarket chains sell the fruits.

Gordon embarked on the C-130 to start up a project under the Philippine National Red Cross called the Fruits of Hope. This project was meant to mitigate the hardships faced by the people of Sulu, Basilan, and other conflicted areas in ARMM during the then freshly declared "all out war" against the Abu Sayyaf who had killed 14 Marines in Basilan. It was his second trip to Sulu after visiting it just a week earlier and reporting his findings to the President in a letter.

In his letter to the President, Gordon wrote about teachers in Sulu who were teaching despite not receiving their salaries because they could not take licensure exams in Zamboangga. He wrote about farmers standing on the street corners of the towns of Sulu, selling their fruit at unbelievably low prices. He wrote about a hospital completely run by volunteers because government health workers refused to be assigned to Sulu for fear of their lives. He wrote of an absence of governance and a failure to deliver basic government services.

After reporting the state of Jolo to the President, he delivered a privilege speech in the Senate. It was in this speech that he first began advocating the "full court press" delivery of good governance and development in Sulu in line with what he described as a new paradigm for peace and development in Mindanao. I watched him as he delivered the speech then, I noticed that most of his colleagues at the Senate were not listening.

A week after that speech, we arrived at the airport in Jolo to begin implementing the Fruits of Hope project.

We were startled by band music and the sight of a huge crowd. After coming to terms with the fanfare, my eyes finally focused on the long line of trucks laden with rambutan, mangosteen, lanzones, durian, and other exotic fruits that grew in Sulu. We were then ushered to a banquet table laden with more fruits and an assortment of suman -- every Philippine province has a version of suman -- but theirs was outstanding.

Gordon made a short speech and while he was talking, a teacher who was in the crowd offered some coffee made from coffee beans grown on the hillsides of Sulu. It was the best cup of coffee I ever tasted and so I asked where I could get the beans. She pointed me to a bunch of sacks by the banquet table and told me to take as much as I want, so I did.

After about an hour or two, I was back on the C-130 with Gordon and the cargo hold was crammed tight with about seven tons of fruits -- along with a couple hundred pounds of black ants. I must have eaten several pounds of rambutan and lansonez as we flew back home.

I had been in Jolo, Sulu before when I was with RTVM but in the many trips to this island province in Mindanao, I had never encountered so much great tasting fruit. In my visits to Sulu with RTVM, we usually just hanged around the port where the LSV Bacolod was docked during most of the day time. There was a small market just outside the port, but most of the stuff sold there were canned goods and two choices of fruit -- marang or durian.

An engineer of RTVM, who had never before encountered marang, made a mistake of buying one and taking it back to our airconditioned quarters in LSV Bacolod. One of the officers of the ship eventually found out and tongue lashed our engineer because the smell of the ripe marang invaded almost every other part of the ship, at times overwhelming the smell of diesel in the engine room.

On the C-130 ride home with Gordon, the smell of the tons of fruit we were riding with began to suffocate me as we circled over Manila. When it finally touched down, I almost ran out of the cargo hold and made a promise to myself not to volunteer to accompany him to similar mission.

Two weeks later, I was back on another C-130 trip for the Fruits of Hope and this time, we were bound for Davao.

In the first and second trips of the Fruits of Hope program, we shared the ride with soldiers who were detailed to help us load and unload the fruits. I had a chance to talk with three of them and while I don't remember their names, I remember their sentiments. All in all, they said that they were happier breaking their backs hauling fruits from Mindanao and delivering humanitarian aid from the Red Cross. What they were doing was a vacation compared to what their real job was, and this is basically choosing between killing or getting killed.

This morning, the government seems bent on continuing with its policy of war and retribution against the Abu Sayyaf.

The Abu Sayyaf first gained notoriety when it raided the town of Ipil in Zamboanga del Sur in April 1995. Over 50 people were killed when the bandits pillaged and then burned down the town center. Thereafter, the list of the atrocities they have perpetrated kept growing.

The government, since the first Abu Sayyaf atrocity, has gone all out in its campaign to eliminate all members of the Abu Sayyaf. And yet, despite killing almost all of its prominent leaders and declaring that the group has been neutralized, the Abu Sayyaf still exists.

Deputy Presidential Spokesperson Anthony Golez confirmed that the proposal to grand amnesty to the Abu Sayyaf has been rejected.

Here's an excerpt from the Philippine Daily Inquirer.
“I have been authorized by the executive secretary to advise you that there will be no amnesty granted to the Abu Sayyaf group,” deputy presidential spokesperson Anthony Golez said in a briefing.

This, Golez said, was consistent with the government’s position that “such leniency” should be extended only to individuals accused of political offenses, “not common criminals especially as brutal as the Abu Sayyaf.”

“These bandits are involved in kidnappings, bombings, beheadings, pillaging of villages, killing of innocent civilians, including women and civilians, rape, ambushes, looting and holdups, illegal taxation, sowing fear in investors,” he said.

When asked how the government should then deal with the bandit group, Golez said: “Just like how we are dealing with the Abu Sayyaf now and Thursday: all-out war against terrorist groups.”

Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. ordered an offensive against the kidnappers after Sunday’s release of Italian Eugenio Vagni, 62, the last of three volunteers of the International Committee of the Red Cross abducted in January to gain freedom.

I just wonder how things will turn out differently if we insist on applying the same failed solutions to persisting problems?


betterphilippines said...

packing syet. ang galing mo sumulat.

that aside... this abu sayyaf problem as we can now clearly see has also become a political as it is a military problem.

on a certain level, i support senator gordon's proposal. opening the doors to dialogue -- even with this group -- wouldn't hurt. who knows things might take a turn for the better.

however, the idea of just letting the abu sayyaf go scot free just doesn't seem right.

in any case, i think the arroyo administration shouldn't have hastily dismissed gordon's proposal. it was an idea albeit a radical one but still it was an idea. as such it should have been taken up for further discussion. an adjustment here and there on the original proposal might have resulted in a more 'acceptable' idea still along the lines of a peaceful approach instead of the usual military offensive.

your stories about gordon are making think he might really be sincere in uplifting the lives of those living in mindanao especially those in war torn areas.
you're doing him a great service my friend.

i just hope you could maybe advise him to refrain from shedding his tears on tv. it's not that i think his doing it for show i just know that it won't do him much good in the long run. as a politician, most people -- including me i guess -- would naturally think of his tear shedding as nothing more than act.

that aside... i would say that, in general, senator gordon is way better than most other politicians.
i'm impressed that he even brought up that idea about granting the abu sayyaf amnesty. this tells me that he is willing to explore radical approaches to solving our country's perennial problems.

i'll be waiting for his ideas on how to once and for all stop graft and corruption.

Admin said...

He'll be glad to learn of your support for his proposal for amnesty. It ain't a bad idea and not as bad as ordering people to shoot other people or bomb their homes.

I am no fan of violence, either from our military or the abu sayyaf. The only violence I tolerate, and perhaps this is bad, is the violence I find in movies, video games, and in boxing.

As for Gordon's tears, it makes me uneasy to see him cry. And he has promised to shed tears only for two things:

1) His father.

2) His country.

So, I guess, hayaan na natin siya. Besides, I really think it is sincere.

As for corruption, come up with a specific question and I'll ask him to answer it.

betterphilippines said...

ok i have a few questions.

the bir is a corrupt agency. the problem is almost everyone if not all of its employees are in on the action. everyone who has ever dealt with the bir knows that but since we love being hypocrites we just ignore it.

my questions:

will he support or initiate a massive reorganization of the bureau?

what will he do to improve the system in general to make it virtually impossible for state officials and employees to engage in graft and corruption?

some say deficiencies in tax collections should not be addressed by imposing higher taxes. instead it should be remedied by simply getting rid of corrupt bir personnel.
what is his opinion on this?

Admin said...

Ya had to ask the hard question. Will show him your question and take down his answer. Give me a few days and I'll post his answer here.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...