Monday, April 06, 2009

Unfair, needless public criticism of our Marines

By Marit Stinus-Remonde

Andreas Notter, Eugenio Vagni and Mary Jean Lacaba of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) were kidnapped in Sulu on January 15. Because ICRC is an “independent, neutral organization ensuring humanitarian protection and assistance for victims of war and other situations of violence” (ICRC website), the three had refused military security.

A Marine general told me that Andreas Notter is a personal friend of his and that he talked to the Swiss about security but the latter said no thanks. A police officer who once had his car bumped by Mr. Notter’s car, told me that Mr. Notter’s vehicle had a “Guns not allowed” sticker on it. An official of a Manila-based corporate foundation who visited Sulu last year was heavily guarded by the Marines throughout her visit. According to her the group that snatched the three ICRC volunteers last January had been waiting for the opportune time to strike.

The ICRC volunteers turned down the offer of the Philippine Marines to secure them to maintain the ICRC’s image as neutral and independent. Unfortunately, Aldaber Parad and his men do not respect such image or desire. They saw three prospective victims and grabbed them when the opportunity presented itself. The Philippine Marines, whose offer of protection was turned down by the ICRC volunteers, have since then been risking lives and limbs to rescue the three. Marine Cpl. Jo-Kris Figura, Cpl. Jeflor de la Torre and Pfc. Franklin Castillo were killed and scores were wounded during clashes between government troops and the kidnappers last March 16 and 17. Figura and de la Torre were 27 years old, Castillo 24.

Sadly, Sen. Richard Gordon, the chairman of the Philippine National Red Cross, has been publicly accusing the Philippine Marines, especially Maj. Gen. Juancho Sabban, of sabotaging his—Sen. Gordon’s—negotiations with Aldaber Parad and thus compromising the lives of the ICRC workers.

The situation should be seen in its proper perspective. The ICRC should review its policies of “neutrality and independence” because these lofty ideals are not respected by everybody. In fact, insisting on these ideals in a place like Sulu has already led to loss of lives among the very people who had wanted to prevent any harm to come to the three humanitarian workers. Violence and war, not neutrality and “no guns allowed” stickers rule the day in certain parts of Sulu. Something we all know. It’s less than a year ago that broadcaster Ces Drilon went through a horrible ordeal in the hands of kidnappers in Sulu. Her fame and connections were as inutile in protecting her from the kidnappers as the ICRC’s badge of neutrality and independence.

Of course, this is a free country and anybody can go anywhere anytime without coordinating their movements with military or police. But if local authorities and the military or police recommend security, we should not refuse, especially if we are foreigners or for some other reasons potential kidnap victims. Not that military security is a 100 percent guarantee against assault or kidnapping, but it does lessen the risk. And we know that should anything happen—like it did with Ms. Drilon, her companions, and the three ICRC workers—it becomes the responsibility of the military to rescue the hostages, whether or not the victims had refused military escorts.

Senator Gordon, concerned as he is for his colleagues from the ICRC, can negotiate with the kidnappers but he doesn’t have to publicly criticize the people who risk their lives and limbs to protect the community from ruthless kidnappers. We might disagree with the particular approach adopted by the military but maybe we could disagree with them in a more respectful manner. Let us not lose sight of the fact that the bad guys are the kidnappers not the Marines who risk their lives to rescue the victims of the former.

There are unfortunately places in our country that are not safe. In Cotabato City, a local businessman and his young daughter were kidnapped some weeks ago, and released upon paying ransom. School teachers and engineers are being kidnapped in Basilan, nurses in Zamboanga. Depriving law-abiding citizens of any nationality of their freedom, holding them against their will for ransom or political demands, and threatening to kill them unless the demands are met, are heinous crimes, the perpetrators criminals.

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