Being kidnapped is a fate that can befall anyone, of course. Any person can be taken against their will, anywhere and at any time. With the rise of home invasions in developed countries, the wealthiest people can be held hostage right in their own domain. Hollywood has explored some of the darkest scenarios to create a genre of hair-raising kidnap movies, but there isn’t always a Liam Neeson or Mel Gibson around to help out. Being seized against one’s will is usually a very lonely affair indeed.
For a Westerner, it begins with difference. Any visitor to the Philippines, holiday-maker or long-term resident, is subjected to a persistent and debilitating version of the one-sided gaze – what might be referred to as the “Hey Joe” phenomenon – whereby any Anglo is assumed to be a wealthy American. In circumstances which belie the persistent idea that the Philippines is a friendly and hospitable destination, each visitor is singled out for this mild abuse and identified as different, always standing out in a crowd. This contributes to an experience which is at once disarming, annoying, and creepy. Whatever else, every Westerner is aware of being spotted as a possible target for God-knows-what; the potential for anything from begging by street urchins and other nuisances to daylight robbery – and even kidnap – is ever present.
This unwelcome attention is reciprocated in the scrutiny applied by those Western males who come to the Philippines on sex tours and the like. Everybody is looking, watching, evaluating. An entire black economy is built upon people appraising other people, a cash figure being attached to every transaction – while all the players in the drama become acutely aware of the monetary value of the objectified Other.
Difference hurt Rodwell. He became isolated in a vast sea of humanity. He didn’t fit into his adopted community; that should have told him something. He appears to have been carefully weighing up his situation. But East provides a useful account of the way in which ignorance of subtle changes in an environment can prevent a person from appreciating an imminent danger, leaving him devoid of any protection from it.
While there is a slight possibility of mishap for us all, the risk remains low in most places, but very high in others. The likelihood of harm increases exponentially in the so-called Third World and in some locales far more than others. The explanation lies in a number of factors, all to do with poverty, corrupt practices, politico- economic instability, and serious failures in governance.
Dr Bob East has established himself as an expert on the workings of the terrorist/ kidnap-for-ransom (KfR) group Abu Sayyaf. In this book he has been able to bring his skills and knowledge about the ASG to bear on the plight of a fellow Australian who was unlucky enough to endure enforced captivity at their hands for well over a year. East’s analysis is perceptive, searching, and he reveals an abiding compassion for the people involved. His perspective emerges from a sensitive consideration of the circumstances of a single incident played out on a much broader canvas.
The important thing to realize about the southern Philippines is that resistance to centuries of colonial oppression has created a culture of violence which has imposed itself on the basic functioning of society. Mindanao is one of the most militarized parts of the world. It is an armed society in which weapons buttress the authority of military officers, militia leaders, and clan warlords, reinforcing a sense of fear and a pervasive misery among the vast mass of ordinary people.
There has recently been a dramatic and controversial Islamic resurgence among Malay Muslims. In Mindanao, the so-called bangsamoro people have been seeking independence or greater autonomy within the Philippine state. In this struggle, the largely secular Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) surrendered to the Ramos government in 1996 and was replaced on the frontline of the separatist struggle by the more religious breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Earlier still, a militant Muslim group called the Mujahedeen Commando Freedom Fighters (also known variously as Abu Sayyaf as well as by other names) was formed by disgruntled mujahedeen trained in Afghanistan and influenced by Islamic jihadists.
The intervening years of bloodshed and savagery have dramatically confirmed that it is not possible to solve ethno-cultural problems through socio-economic programs or through military action. If national self-determination is considered a fundamental human right, then better initiatives must be devised and implemented to satisfy the special concerns and needs of the minority Muslim Filipinos. For now, the demands of the bangsamoro people; consequently, frustrations run high and lawlessness is endemic.
Hostage-taking has become a cottage industry in the southern Philippines, where incidents of kidnapping soared in 2008 and have remained high thereafter. It is a lucrative money-generating activity. Hundreds of people have been seized, some more high-profile than others. Most are Filipinos, but Western victims generate much more publicity.
Since September 11, the southern Philippines has also been subsumed into the US Global War on Terror. The Americans deemed it to be the Second Front in their fight against Al-Qaida and its regional offshoots. Mindanao was no longer just the home of nearly 25 million poor and struggling people; it was now part of the notorious T3 (or Terrorist Transit Triangle)
The issues on the ground include the prolonged confinement of Western hostages by the Abu Sayyaf Group. Sacrosanct beach resorts have been raided and there has been an outpouring of lurid stories about beheadings and other atrocities. Such incidents do much to foster the prevailing view held by outsiders that Mindanao is indeed a lawless and dangerous place which probably does require some drastic reforms. Meanwhile, the south and its problems remain a factor in the self-serving political game being played in Manila under the watchful eye of the United States. Former President Arroyo allowed American intrusion into the contested offshore islands of Basilan and Sulu as part of a calculated gamble to use the emerging war on terrorism to divert attention from her domestic problems. President NoyNoy Aquino subsequently promised to bring a political settlement to Mindanao, but the problems continue and they allow criminal groups like Abu Sayyaf to operate with impunity within their own bailiwicks.
It can truly be said that Mindanao, to borrow from the Bard, is more sinned against than sinning. As one of the poorest places in God’s creation, it remains crippled by extreme poverty and its populace languishes without adequate housing, education, health and other services. Crime and criminality prosper is these circumstances.
Mindanao occupies a peripheral and problematic space in the national consciousness. It is remarked that more Filipinos have been to the United States than have ever been to Mindanao. Most Filipinos are frightened of the place and choose never to go south, even for a visit. But what are the factors underlying such caution? What is the reality – grim or otherwise – of the Mindanao existence? Context is essential and some background information is useful in understanding Rodwell’s saga. Captive of the Abu Sayyaf provides such information. It combines both the rough-&-tumble of everyday life on the Philippine frontier with the deeper reality of feudal practices in an area dominated by corrupt politicians and powerful warlords.
Some parts of Mindanao are especially bedevilled by violence. Ipil in the province of Zamboanga Sibugay is a case in point. Yet this is where Rodwell chose to live. The scene of a barbaric attack on April 4, 1995, the little town is one of many so-called crossfire villages throughout Mindanao whose inhabitants find themselves at the mercy of forces much larger than themselves. On this occasion, 200 armed men attacked Ipil, a mainly Christian enclave of 50,000 inhabitants in a Muslim area, and destroyed much of it. Over 50 people were killed and dozens taken hostage. Banks were robbed and stores looted. The culprits were never accurately identified. Abu Sayyaf and other Muslim rebels, so-called Lost Commands, and even elements of the Philippine military have been implicated (much later but not so far away 59 victims were murdered in the Maguindanao Massacre of November 23, 2009, by local police and militiamen). Ipil remains deeply divided to this day. It was foolish for a Westerner, always seen as wealthy, to live there.
The bystanders who saw Rodwell dragged away could do nothing. Reprisals for interfering are brutal and immediate. And men disguised as police, as these hoodlums were, can too often turn out to be the real thing. Many lawmen and other office-holders raise funds by operating criminal cartels. Kidnapping, piracy, and extortion have become an essential part of the regional economy.
Locals are nervous enough about their own circumstances and are unlikely to become too involved in the problems of an outsider. Because so many Filipinos plot and plan to leave the country, they remain puzzled and distrustful about anyone who wants to settle in their neighbourhood; there is a sense that any stranger who tries to set up house in their troubled domain truly deserves anything that might befall him.
Meanwhile, the reach of the central government remains weak; its authority in the peripheral areas of the archipelago is diluted through clan chieftains and military commanders. Through wheeling and dealing, criminal formations like the ASG are able to exercise influence and assert control over large swathes of territory in the south. What should perhaps have worried Rodwell more than it apparently did was the collusion between the various power-brokers in his area. KfR is used by local strongmen with more or less official status as an easy means of raising funds. In an essentially feudal environment, kidnapping can resemble the payment of tribute.
As with any tale of human endurance, there are lessons to be learned here. The story told by Dr East is a melancholy one, to be sure, but it needs to be publicized and understood. The Philippine and Australian governments imposed a media blackout during Rodwell’s imprisonment, something which should have provoked outrage. More scepticism needed to be shown about official methods and the role of some of the worst rogues in the country. There was madness in leaving the investigation in the hands of those like Governor Rommel Jalosjos of Zamboanga Sibugay and his henchmen, bearing in mind that their policy of secrecy was implemented so that portions of any ransom could more easily be shared between all stakeholders, including the negotiators. The US Rewards-for-Justice scheme has also over-heated the situation and increased the amount of corruption involved in all such operations. Whatever else, Western input has too often been heavy-handed and counter-productive.
In the interim, Canberra remains a major sponsor of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and refuses to acknowledge the horrendous abuses it has perpetrated. Our aid to the military is second only to that of the US itself. Australia maintains a contingent of police, intelligence agents, and other contractors in Mindanao. We recently gave the Philippine armed forces no less than thirty airboats ostensibly for hunting terrorists, but more likely for getting into shallow estuarine waters and evicting Moro communities from resource-rich areas in and around the Liguasan Marsh which are slated for development by foreign corporations. Australia’s role in this process needs to be thoroughly investigated for potential human rights abuses, especially our support of right-wing vigilante groups like the Barangay [village] Intelligence Network (BIN). What frequently goes unacknowledged is that such external meddling leads to strong resentment against foreigners, an important factor in kidnapping situations.
Rodwell survived his ordeal, but he was poorly served by local officials and by his own government, which is capable of great dissembling and has been too willing to deal with the worst rascals in Mindanao. We are also playing clandestine games there, earning much local resentment and fuelling some nascent anti-Australian resentment. There are many (im)pertinent questions yet to be asked about spooky activity by intelligence agencies throughout the southern Philippines. This dimension of the drama requires much more study, not least because it compromises the friendship between Filipinos and Australians. For now we have in this impressive new book, Captive of the Abu Sayyaf, a thorough and intriguing account by a seasoned expert about a brave and resilient Australian who endured what for most of us remains beyond our worst nightmares. One can only be humbled by reading about the things he had to endure. The author is to be complemented for fashioning the story so that personal concerns are persuasively interwoven with the larger picture. We are able to salute Warren Rodwell while at the same time congratulating Bob East on a tale well told.