FILIPPINE: To be abducted in the Philippines

To be abducted in the Philippines
By Joel D Adriano

MANILA – Official efforts to promote the Philippines as a foreign investment and tourism destination have suffered from a series of foreign kidnappings, including two European birdwatchers who went missing on February 1 from the restive southern region of Mindanao.

Swiss national Lorenzo Vinciguerra and Dutch citizen Ewold Horn set out late last month on a backcountry expedition to photograph the critically endangered Sulu hornbill. The duo were abducted by an unknown group of gunmen in Tawi-Tawi, a vast remote area which consists of more than 300 small islands bordering Malaysia.

The kidnappings have reminded that the Philippines remains one of the region’s most dangerous destinations for foreigners. The government’s inability to maintain security in remote areas, some

analysts say, has taken the shine off President Benigno Aquino’s efforts to lure more foreign investment and tourism.

Pacific Strategies Assessment (PSA), a local risk consultancy, estimates that at least 21 foreigners were abducted last year in the Philippines as part of a widening kidnap-for-ransom racket run by criminal groups who demand huge amounts of money for their captives’ release.

Five of those kidnapped in 2011 remain in captivity, including an Australian, two Malaysian traders, an Indian and an elderly Japanese. In a video release last month, kidnappers demanded US$2 million for abducted former Australian soldier Warren Rodwell. The latest kidnappings in Mindanao bring to three the number of foreigners abducted so far this year.

According to Richard Jacobson, operations director at PSA, the kidnappings are often well-planned. He says criminal gangs often first collect information about their victims, including the contact details of their families so they may negotiate directly for their release. Jacobson said there are reasons to believe that members of local communities, often acting as informants, are frequently involved in kidnapping cases. A number of locals have also been kidnapped, including wealthy Filipinos of Chinese descent. Local abductees tend to be more quickly released because kidnappers often ask for smaller ransoms.

While Western embassy advisories often only warn against traveling to certain parts of Mindanao, PSA notes in recent reports that there is a general rise in criminal activities targeting foreigners throughout the country. That includes gangs operating out of Manila’s airport area that target foreigners who travel solo or late at night.

While the government and military often pin blame on the Abu Sayyaf terror group for the kidnappings, security expert Rommel Banlaoi argues that victims are often initially abducted by ordinary criminal groups who for a fee pass them over to Abu Sayyaf, an al-Qaeda-linked Islamist militant group.

Banlaoi, currently executive director of the local Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research, believes that Abu Sayyaf has over the years established a vast network with many criminal groups in Mindanao to help bankroll its low-level insurgency.

Jacobson said that these criminal gangs previously refrained from kidnapping foreigners because of the diplomatic pressure that the abductees’ home countries would exert on the Philippine government, which in response often launches massive military operations to recover the victims.

With funds from Middle Eastern patrons drying up due to the US’s global campaign against terrorism, Abu Sayyaf and its criminal cohorts are taking greater risks to raise revenues by kidnapping more foreigners, according to Banlaoi.

Banlaoi said Abu Sayyaf views foreigners as “walking dollars” and estimates the terror group has earned some 1.4 billion pesos (US$33 million) from kidnap-for-ransom activities over the period spanning 1992 to 2010. While many Western government’s maintain “no ransom” policies, families of victims are often willing to negotiate and pay outside of official channels. In 2003, a Singaporean was released after his family paid US$165,000.

The Philippine government’s department of tourism aims to attract 4.2 million visitors this year and 10 million by the end of Aquino’s term in 2016. Foreign visitors reached 3.9 million last year, representing an 11% year on year expansion. Largely due to safety concerns, the Philippines is among Southeast Asia’s least visited countries, despite its many tropical beaches and jungle getaways.

“If we talk of perceptions [then] the Philippines is at the bottom among ASEAN countries,” said Jacobson, who notes that many tourists who encounter troubles ignore well-publicized travel advisories for risky areas of the country. “But the realities are if only tourists stick to the tourist areas then there shouldn’t be problems,” Jacobson said.

In reaction to the latest kidnappings, Aquino’s government quickly organized a massive rescue operation, including an apparently related military bombing raid on the island of Jolo. (Authorities may have prematurely announced the death of three top terror suspects, two with Jemaah Islamiyah and one from Abu Sayyaf, in the aerial bombing.)

According to Banlaoi, military strikes actually worsen the situation in kidnapping-prone, poverty-afflicted areas. “Kidnap-for-ransom is enmeshed with many issues of armed violence in Mindanao like banditry, terrorism, insurgency, gangsterism, warlordism and even clan feuding,” he said. “There is a need to understand the complex nexus of all these issues.”

Until such an understanding is reached, kidnappings will continue to damage the country’s image and scare away tourists and investors.

Joel D Adriano is an independent consultant and award-winning freelance journalist. He was a sub-editor for the business section of The Manila Times and writes for ASEAN BizTimes, Safe Democracy and People’s Tonight.

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To be abducted in the Philippines

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