Manila Hostage Drama

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A long history of hostage-taking

March 30, 2007 01:47:00
Amando Doronila
Inquirer

MANILA, Philippines -- The hostage-taking of 26 children, wards of a Tondo, Manila, day-care center, ended with their release unharmed after 10 hours of horror, but not before it riveted the attention of the world. The drama near Manila City Hall became part of a universal human experience played out before the eyes of millions in homes and places of work by TV cameras of the global networks of BBC, CNN, YouTube, and the Arabic TV station Al-Jazeera.

Although the episode shocked Filipinos as well as it did other citizens of the world, it was not entirely unexpected. The Philippines has a long history of hostage-taking, ranging from the kidnap for ransom of wealthy Chinese-Filipinos to the seizure in June 2001 of missionaries Martin and Gracia Burnham together with some Filipinos by the Abu Sayyaf in a tourist resort in Palawan.

What made the hostage-taking in Manila this week reprehensible and outrageous was that the victims were children, the most vulnerable and defenseless specie of the human race. Almost every day, mayhem takes place in Iraq, where terrorist attacks take a toll of foreign soldiers occupying that country and journalists and protagonists (between Shi’ites and Sunni militants) are being held and tortured. Only last Friday, Iranian forces seized 15 British naval personnel, including one woman, patrolling the Shatt-al-Arab waterway between Iran and Iraq. They were attached to the HMS Cornwall. Iran claims that the British had strayed into Iranian waters, and the British insist that their sailors were kidnapped in Iraqi waters. The hostages are now being used as leverage by Iran to ease United Nations sanctions to halt Iran’s nuclear weapons development program. The seizure in the Persian Gulf has strategic geopolitical implications.

The Abu Sayyaf seized its hostages to send the political message that it was not a spent force in the Muslim separatist movement in Southern Philippines and, just as importantly, to extract ransom to sustain its terrorist actions.

In none of these situations were children victimized. The surest way to alienate broad support for a cause is to touch innocent children, the bottom line of uncivilized behavior in war or any conflict. Hostage-taking comes with different motivations, but the seizure of the 26 children by Armando Ducat, owner of the child care center in Parola, Tondo, had none of the burning motivations that drove Islamist terrorists to hijack aircraft to crash into the World Trade Center twin towers on Sept. 11, 2003. The Islamist terrorists of Osama bin-Laden bombed the towers, motivated by the desire to avenge centuries-old grievances and resentment against alleged Western wrongs on Islam, dating back to the Christian crusades of the 11th century.

The Manila episode was bizarre. Ducat painted the seizure of children, over which he had responsibility, with a veneer of idealism and civic conscience. In melodramatic fashion, he used the children as pawns to call attention to so much corruption, and to grinding poverty. “While generations of politicians change, we continue to suffer in poverty,” he said. These politicians promise education, health and housing, he said, “but unless we stop corruption ... they will just feast on the budget.”

No matter the claims of a lofty purpose, Ducat’s action had the marks of aberrant behavior. Ducat has a history of staging stunts to grab attention.

He made the specific demand that his pupils receive “education up to college,” a demand that was met by the undertaking of Amable Aguiluz, head of a computer-training school, to provide the scholarships. In the end, the benefit was limited to Ducat’s pupils, not systemic in scope.

Since Ducat did not single out any politician for blame, the Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo administration squeezed through the incident unscathed, except for the embarrassment caused by the fact that the incident broke out in the midst of a Publish Asia conference attended by publishers and editors of regional media, in which she had delivered the keynote speech.

Although the children escaped unharmed, taking them hostages to right social wrongs was terrorism no less outrageous and despicable than the violent attacks of Islamist extremists. Ducat wrote a note attached to a hand grenade saying, “Let the candles be a warning. If the promises remain unfulfilled, you will see those candles again.” He gave the note to Ilocos Sur Gov. Luis Singson, while putting the pin back on the grenade he was holding, before he surrendered.

His assistant was armed with a handgun, an Uzi automatic rifle and two grenades. Any of these weapons could have gone off if the police had been less prudent in handling the standoff.

Whether it was the 9/11 bombing, the Abu Sayyaf seizure or the Persian Gulf kidnapping of British sailors, all these actions had a single hallmark: they were meant to extract concessions at gunpoint. It was even worse in Manila. Wars tend to spread out its carnage across combatants and civilians, but only in rare cases have children been used as hostages. Only in the Philippines have children been picked to be used as pawns to leverage demands for reforms.

At the Publish Asia conference, a journalist from South India said he had not expected such an event to happen in the Philippines. “It’s more routine in the United States, which is full of crazies,” he explained. “He has to be mentally off. No sane man would do such a thing.”

It leads to surprises to discount such aberrations happening in the Philippines.

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