Mostly, Valentines’ Day just fills me with indifference. There’s also a bit of annoyance as I try mightily hard not to notice the thicker crowd and the bumper-to-bumper traffic on every street in Metro Manila. But this recent Valentine’s Day, there was a different feeling in the air. Who would have thought that the day of the usual commercial mush could fill me with dread?
On early evening of 14 February, a bomb exploded in General Santos and another in Davao, both financial centers of restive Mindanao, Philippines’ southern island. At around 7pm that evening, while everyone was rushing towards home, toward their valentines, another bomb exploded inside a bus on the extremely busy Ayala Avenue in Manila killing three people, injuring at least 100, and damaging two nearby buses. Good thinking on the part of terrorists: Ayala Ave is a few steps away from two hotels, a huge shopping center, the rail transit (MRT), and the Makati Business District, the Philippines’ Wall Street. Ayala Ave is where I get off the train to catch the bus home from work every day.
The next morning, I turned on the radio to hear that the bandit group Abu Sayyaf claimed responsibility for the three consecutive blasts. The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) reportedly has links to Jemayah Islamiyah, the Indonesian rebel group responsible for the Bali bombing, which in turn has connections with Al Qaeda. Some ASG members were also said to have been on Osama bin Laden’s payroll, and underwent training in his camp. ASG claimed to be fighting for the integrity of Islam and for a separate Muslim Mindanao, but everybody is inclined to believe that they are just a bunch of rejects from government-recognized separatist movements who cloak their kidnap-for-ransom projects in religious rhetoric. The man who identified himself as Abu Sulayman, ASG’s spokesman, left a chilling and gloating message on the morning radio news: he said the blasts were ASG’s Valentine’s Day gifts to the President. More would follow and ASG does not care if it harms more civilians.
With the ASG back on the news, the public was given another thing to worry about, apart from inflation and rising transport fares. When the news broke out, friends and family members were calling each other to check on their loved ones who were in Ayala when the bombing happened. A couple of my friends were in the area and saw the buses explode, but luckily they were out of the harm’s way. A day after the bombing, there were people up and about, but there was a palpable uneasiness. The late night news featured people on the streets, who said yes, they were worried and if given a choice, they would have been happier staying indoors. But what can you do? One must go out to work, to buy food, to run errands, to go to school . . . There was also the sentiment that all of us were tricked because just last year, the government said the ASG was a “spent force”, and so we have weathered the worse and the humiliation. (No more travel advisories against the Philippines!) ASG was the group responsible for the kidnapping of at least two-dozen or so locals and foreigners various resorts since 2000. The group also bombed marketplaces and churches in the South and the passenger ship that killed at least 100. The group is ruthless in choosing its victims. Once, it held hostage a hospital in Basilan and abducted some of its doctors and nurses. Press releases from the government said the less than 100 or so ASG members were hiding out in the mountains and presumably, since their leadership had been rooted out and jailed or killed, the movement no longer had the “brains” to carry out another attack. One of the group’s commanders, a man named Commander Robot whose funny name belies his thrill for beheading and raping and then marrying his women prisoners was wounded in firefight, had his leg amputated, and was recently killed when he and other ASG leaders with silly names like Commander Global and Commander Kosovo, attempted to escape jail, failed, and were killed when police stormed the prison compound. But what ASG lacks in the brains department they make up in determination and hard-headedness, so the question of whether they are “intelligent” or not is moot.
Ever since President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo sided with George W. Bush on the so-called war on terror, I braced myself for these kinds of attacks. Arroyo bit off more than she could chew when she agreed with Bush: her membership in the coalition of the willing has made us sitting ducks. We’re the answers to Al-Qaeda’s prayer: a pro-war country that has a lousy national security plan. We don’t have laser-guided bombs, high-tech choppers, or a basement-full of data analysts, translators, and cryptographers to protect us or warn us of impending attacks. We do not even have enough manpower to weed out the relevant information from the prank calls that comes in on 117, the emergency number. We have more generals than attack planes and brand new combat boots are harder to come by than wars. Even with the help and equipment from American troops who are here for military exercises, our very own has yet to eliminate the 100 or so members of extremists groups, whose numbers are increasing everyday since the Jemayah Islamiyah has decided to tap them for their larger terror campaign.
But the ASG is not the only group that is making life difficult. To make matters worse, the recent bombings have given military men in the government the chance to propose various methods to control the movements of people. One idea is to have a national identification and database system. The idea of having all Filipinos issued with IDs first surfaced in the term of Fidel Ramos, the former general turned president, who proposed it as a solution to the peace and order problem in the mid-90s. The ID proposal was shot down by the Supreme Court in 2003 for lack of legislation, but recently, it has been gaining ground. The selling pitch was that by having an ID and a database, law enforcement agencies would have an easier time threshing out the illegal aliens and checking out crime records. I do not really know how they would go about this, the government is harping about lack of funds and it cannot even clean up the civil registries or the voters’ list. But the brightest advice when it comes to deterring crime came from Interior and Local Government Secretary Angelo Reyes, himself a former general and Defense Minister. He called on local barangay (village) heads to report immediately anyone or anything that looks or sounds or acts suspicious. If I were such a bad person, I would report my neighbor who tunes in to inane radio pop stations at high volume. I’m suspicious of his taste.
So I no longer feel that I can ride the MRT, my favorite mode of transportation, without thinking that it could be my last train ride or that I could go blind if the whole thing explodes and glass shards get into my eyes. One of my greatest fears is not being able to read. Just thinking about it makes me feel like I am already dead. I don’t know about other people, but I have developed new habits these past four years. Whenever I commute, I take off my glasses. When riding the bus or the MRT, I have taken to discreetly looking under chairs for abandoned packages. I have taken to staring at people (when they are not looking at me). The man with the fake Jansport backpack obviously a construction worker, with his leathery skin and matted hair is that an evil gleam in his eyes? He sure fits the profile of ASG recruits; he looks poor and uneducated. Another train of thought: This woman beside me looks shifty. Is it possible that the extremists have recruited yuppie women? Suicide bombers in Israel and Palestine recruit women who look like her. In this post-September 11 world, everyone is a potential enemy and ordinary things are given sinister meanings. Abandoned bags and packages are now instruments of destruction, trashcans have become silent, yet menacing beasts.
Meanwhile, everywhere I go, be it the train station, the mall, the library, under-equipped security guards poke the contents of my backpack with sticks because they don’t have metal detectors. The inspections are all for show. They don’t exactly burrow their way into the contents of my bag: I just zip it open and they take a peep. I don’t know what they’re looking for. They probably don’t know what they’re looking for. Last Christmas we were all required to open our gifts for inspection. Everybody thinks it’s a big inconvenience. But what can you do?
* * *
Right now, not everybody is convinced that the Abu Sayyaf was responsible for the Valentine’s Day bombing. It’s possible, but they are also a bunch of braggarts who, in a perverse way, would gladly take credit for such a heinous act. Who can take seriously a group that had leaders named “Commander Robot” and “Commander Global” anyway? And besides, we have plenty of other suspects to choose from: could be followers of jailed rebel leader Nur Misuari who are currently at it with government forces in Sulu, or the New People’s Army, the armed wing of the Communist Party of the Philippines, which is still trying to topple the government three decades since it was founded.
And of course, also on our list of suspects is our very own government. This is not the first time that this kind of accusation surfaced. Two years ago, a group of junior military officers staged a failed mutiny and held hostage a hotel in Ayala (again) accusing Arroyo of turning a blind eye to the soldiers’ miserable state and basic requests (new uniforms for their men, ammunitions, benefits). The upstarts also accused the Arroyo of masterminding the Sasa Wharf, Davao bombing, and blaming the ASG for the deed. While everyone disagreed with the way the mutineers aired their complaints, the general consensus was that their gripes were valid and the bombing accusation was probably right.
That the government is on our list of suspects poignantly illustrates its failure to solve the discontentment felt by the people of Mindanao, a predominantly Muslim region that is often called the Philippines’ last frontier because of its abundant resources and distinct culture. It is also our Chechnya. For decades, separatists groups have flourished in the region and tried to gain independence. It was no wonder why Muslim Mindanao wanted out of the republic. The region has been neglected and misunderstood for so long by the predominantly Catholic government, so many Muslims in Mindanao are only eager to make it on their own. They have been doing it since the 1600s, anyway. Muslim Mindanao is the only region that the conquistadors, and the Americans and Japanese colonizers had to give up. They could not control it. The region the land and the people was just too fierce for them.
But the government would never give the region up so it made a compromise with the region’s leaders. In 1990, the government recognized that Muslim Mindanao needs a separate set of administrators and created the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM). Unfortunately, that did not eradicate completely the unrests. Fifteen years since ARMM was created development is still slow in coming and mistreatment of Muslims is still prevalent. ARMM workers receive the lowest wages and pregnant women in the region are less likely to receive pre- and antenatal care than their counterparts from other provinces. In the cities, Muslim settlements are the first to be raided when reports of bomb plots emerge.
During a recent press conference, members of the House of Representatives from Mindanao pleaded at the government to halt the decades-long militarization in Mindanao because it is just making things worse. Instead of bringing in more troops to the region, the government should bring in more aid. Unwavering attention to the region’s development -not militarization - is the only remedy they can think of to stop the spread of violence.
They gave an example. Right now, government and separatist troops are pounding away the tiny island of Sulu. Civilians who were caught in the cross fire and who saw their houses burned to the ground are potential recruits for the extremist groups, who lure them through promises of divine and material glory. The solons said they have seen some of their constituents go to the other side. They do not see the government as their ally, the solons said, Imperial Manila having been ignored and marginalized the region for years. Instead they see it as the cause of their misery; the bullet that took the life of their son, the bomb that turned their house to ashes.
* * *
A month after the 14 February blasts, we were again confronted with a new set of dilemma, and the same set of fears. On 14 March, the ASG leaders and other terror suspects imprisoned in the maximum-security compound of the Bicutan jail held a mutiny, killing three jail guards. The ASG demanded a speedy trial and food and medicines. They also wanted their negotiator to be their idol, actor, Islam convert, and former self-confessed “Bad Boy of the Philippine Cinema” Robin Padilla, but since Padilla was abroad, they had to make do with a Mindanaoan congressman. They also wanted to talk live to the media, although this demand was thumbed down. The negotiations lasted the whole night. In the morning, the authorities said they were fed up and stormed the compound with tear gas and heavy ammunitions. The last straw that prompted this attack? The prisoners demanded breakfast.
After the tear gas cleared, 22 terror suspects, including the Commanders Robot, Global, and Kosovo, and one police officer was dead. The other inmates were ordered to march out of the compound in their underwear. Nobody said Abu Ghraib, but already questions about the police using excessive force (the prisoners only had three hand guns) and their failure to exhaust all peaceful means have surfaced.
The dead were buried in a shallow mass grave covered in white shrouds. Their relatives and friends said they died as martyrs and vowed revenge. The remaining ASG members promised to retaliate and bomb churches during the Holy Week. There were reports that the ASG would use car bombs now. Great, in addition to being wary of discarded packages and trashcans, now I will have to watch out for abandoned cars.