ad info




TIME Asia
TIME Asia Home
Current Issue
Magazine Archive
Asia Buzz
Travel Watch
Web Features
  Entertainment
  Photo Essays

Subscribe to TIME
Customer Services
About Us
Write to TIME Asia

TIME.com
TIME Canada
TIME Europe
TIME Pacific
TIME Digital
Asiaweek
Latest CNN News

Young China
Olympics 2000
On The Road

 ASIAWEEK.COM
 CNN.COM
  east asia
  southeast asia
  south asia
  central asia
  australasia
 BUSINESS
 SPORTS
 SHOWBIZ
 ASIA WEATHER
 ASIA TRAVEL


Other News
From TIME Asia

Culture on Demand: Black is Beautiful
The American Express black card is the ultimate status symbol

Asia Buzz: Should the Net Be Free?
Web heads want it all -- for nothing

JAPAN: Failed Revolution
Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori clings to power as dissidents in his party finally decide not to back a no-confidence motion

Cover: Endgame?
After Florida's controversial ballot recount, Bush holds a 537-vote lead in the state, which could give him the election

TIME Digest
FORTUNE.com
FORTUNE China
MONEY.com

TIME Asia Services
Subscribe
Subscribe to TIME! Get up to 3 MONTHS FREE!

Bookmark TIME
TIME Media Kit
Recent awards

TIME Asia Asiaweek Asia Now TIME Asia story

MAY 15, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 19

Crisis Situation
An ongoing hostage drama in the Philippines is tarnishing President Estrada's image and undermining confidence in his administration
By TERRY MCCARTHY


Enrique Sorinao/AP.
A doctor treats two hostages at the Abu Sayyaf mountain camp, but no one has been set freei.

"Welcome to Jolo" reads the white painted sign over the wharf. But there is scant welcome for anyone on the island these days. On the quayside, locals are crowding onto boats to get out. Jolo has become kidnap central, the most dangerous place in the Philippines, and anyone who can is leaving. They have good reason: barely half an hour's drive from the port, 21 hostages, mostly foreigners, are being held by 200 Muslim fighters from the feared Abu Sayyaf separatist group. These rebels are surrounded by 2,000 government troops. Everyone fears trouble is coming.

Just when President Joseph Estrada thought things could not get worse in his troubled presidency, things got worse. Battling domestic critics of his handling of the economy, he suddenly finds himself facing two separate hostage situations and a rash of bombings in the Muslim south--and six foreign governments desperate to get their nationals back without loss of life. Ten Malaysians, three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns and a Lebanese along with a Filipina were taken to Jolo two weeks ago from the Malaysian resort island of Sipadan. Their embassies in Manila have been calling for a peaceful resolution to the crisis. The ensuing events have done little to reassure them.

Last Monday, a female doctor in Jolo was allowed to visit the foreign hostages and found them in poor health with low morale. "The kidnappers say we will be here for two months," said South African captive Monique Styrdom. "I don't think anyone will survive this." The doctor gave them some medicines and recommended that two be hospitalized, but she was forced to leave without taking any of the hostages with her.

A day later, the rebels holding the foreign hostages fired at government troops they said were getting too close to their position. One soldier was killed, and the rebels claimed two of the hostages also died during the fighting, although the government later denied any foreigners had been killed. All efforts to open negotiations with the hostage takers were then suspended.

  ALSO IN TIME

COVER: Lovesick
A computer virus that may have originated in the Philippines paralyzes e-mail systems around the globe, raising fears about the security of the much-vaunted wired world

THE PHILIPPINES: Caught in the Middle
Twin hostage crises bring a resurgence of violence to the nation's south--and a headache for President Estrada

SRI LANKA: Showdown
The country goes on war alert as Tamil Tigers fighting for an independent homeland move to retake the Jaffna peninsula
'We Must Declare War': President of the influential National Sanga Council Maduluwawe Sobitha Thera speaks to TIME in this Web-only Interview

CHINA: Boom Time
With the Internet set to take off across the country, Time speaks with five individuals who are leading the charge

THAILAND: Collision Course
Web-only Exclusive: Thailand's Finance Minister hasn't always seen eye to eye with his country's central bank governor
'I'm Here To Do a Job': Web-Only Exclusive: Outspoken Bank of Thailand Governor Chatu Mongol Sonakul pulls no punches

CINEMA: Marrying The Director
Web-only Exclusive: Actress Maggie Cheung on life, love and meeting Steven Spielberg

TRAVEL WATCH: Do-It-Yourself Luxury on Thailand's Railways

ALSO IN TIME
TIME Asia Web Features: more exclusive interviews, photo essays and special sites

The following day on the island of Basilan, just 80 km northeast of Jolo, troops seeking to free 27 Filipinos held by another Abu Sayyaf faction engaged their captors in a firefight. These hostages had been taken from two schools on March 20, and included a number of children. By the end of the confrontation, four hostages were dead, 15 were rescued--some of them badly injured--and eight were still missing. The army said the operation was a success, but Estrada knows he cannot afford many more "successes" like that. Foreign investors are getting jittery about the violence in the south, the Manila Stock Exchange is at an 18-month low and the President, who has cultivated a reputation for being tough on crime, is now looking vulnerable.

Estrada came to power vowing to use the fertile soil and typhoon-free climate of Mindanao to make the southern island into the breadbasket of the Philippines. Since the early 1970s Mindanao has been wracked by warfare between Muslim separatists and the predominantly Catholic central government. Former President Fidel Ramos made some progress in pacifying the rebels, but under Estrada the peace talks have stalled. On Wednesday, the largest separatist group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, used the distraction of the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings to stage its own attacks on several locations in Mindanao, leaving 35 dead. The airport in Cotabato was closed after a mortar hit the runway, and the southern fishing port of General Santos was shut down almost entirely by a series of bombings around the town. Further bombings followed on Saturday--five people were killed in a bus explosion in Surigao--just hours into a 48-hour ceasefire declared by the group. Estrada had earlier vowed to get tough on all of the Muslim rebels, promising "all-out war" if they did not sign a peace agreement by the end of June. But since the foreign hostages were taken on April 23, his freedom to act has been constrained.

For the time being, Estrada is pinning his hopes for the release of the foreigners on the negotiating tactics of Nur Misuari, a former Muslim rebel leader who came over to the government side as the result of a peace agreement in 1996. On Friday Misuari said he had reopened contact with Abu Sayyaf. His emissaries on Jolo had assured him all the foreigners were still alive, although two had sustained minor injuries during the firefight earlier in the week and were receiving treatment for their wounds. Misuari said he expected a list of demands, including a monetary ransom, to be handed over within days. Even though Estrada has ruled out paying ransom, Misuari says it will be called money to cover the "lodging costs" for the hostages, along with some funds for "economic development" of the island. Several foreign governments are understood to be prepared to pay to get their nationals out, and some are trying to persuade Manila to allow foreign negotiators to take part in talks with the kidnappers. "We are now in the eye of the storm," says Misuari, who counsels patience in dealing with Abu Sayyaf.

Others are more eager to confront the militants head on. "We are sure to pulverize them to pulp," says police superintendent Candido Casimiro, the provincial commander in Jolo. "Be assured that we have enough men to do the job." Most people on Jolo appear to have turned against Abu Sayyaf, which has squandered whatever sympathy it once enjoyed for its purported goal of achieving a separate Muslim state in the south. The latest kidnapping crisis has only intensified local opposition to the group. "They are like the plague," says Zeny Masong, who works for a local radio station. For years Abu Sayyaf fighters have extorted protection money from the local population to finance their operations. Families who run businesses or have relatives earning money overseas are liable to receive a letter from the rebels demanding money--with an unvoiced threat if they don't comply.


Jimin Lai/AFP.
A member of the government militia waits outside Abu Sayyaf's camp on Jolo Island, where 21 hostages, mostly foreigners, are being held.

An ominous calm now shrouds the town of Jolo, and the streets are deserted long before the official 9 p.m. curfew. Some shops stay closed all day. Residents say they have seen some of the Abu Sayyaf fighters in the town, and there are fears of more kidnappings. Late last week a Malaysian journalist was forcibly taken to a jeep from outside his Jolo hotel by six men but then released.

By the end of the week, the captors had reportedly split the foreign hostages into four groups, making any attempt at a rescue even more difficult. In charge of the hostages was the notorious "Commander Robot," a moustachioed, long-haired man in his 40s with much experience in kidnapping for ransom, and his sidekick, the one-armed fighter "Commander Raddulan." They have threatened to behead two of the hostages if the government does not negotiate. Misuari, for one, thinks they are not bluffing: "What they are doing is an act of desperation--they are suicidal."

For Estrada, the situation is equally desperate. The Philippines is already starting to fall behind the rest of Asia's economic recovery. In its latest forecast, the Asian Development Bank predicts the Philippines' GDP growth will be the lowest of all countries in the Asian region, even lagging behind such troubled economies as Indonesia, Vietnam and Burma. The multiple hostage crises and bombing attacks are the worst possible P.R. in the eyes of foreign investors. "Political risk" is something investors thought they could put behind them in most of South East Asia these days. Tragically, it is again becoming a fact of life in the Philippines--from Jolo to Manila.

Reported by Nelly Sindayen/Jolo


Write to TIME at mail@web.timeasia.com

This edition's table of contents
TIME Asia home


AsiaNow


Quick Scroll: More stories from TIME, Asiaweek and CNN

   LATEST HEADLINES:

WASHINGTON
U.S. secretary of state says China should be 'tolerant'

MANILA
Philippine government denies Estrada's claim to presidency

ALLAHABAD
Faith, madness, magic mix at sacred Hindu festival

COLOMBO
Land mine explosion kills 11 Sri Lankan soldiers

TOKYO
Japan claims StarLink found in U.S. corn sample

BANGKOK
Thai party announces first coalition partner



TIME:

COVER: President Joseph Estrada gives in to the chanting crowds on the streets of Manila and agrees to make room for his Vice President

THAILAND: Twin teenage warriors turn themselves in to Bangkok officials

CHINA: Despite official vilification, hip Chinese dig Lamaist culture

PHOTO ESSAY: Estrada Calls Snap Election

WEB-ONLY INTERVIEW: Jimmy Lai on feeling lucky -- and why he's committed to the island state



ASIAWEEK:

COVER: The DoCoMo generation - Japan's leading mobile phone company goes global

Bandwidth Boom: Racing to wire - how underseas cable systems may yet fall short

TAIWAN: Party intrigues add to Chen Shui-bian's woes

JAPAN: Japan's ruling party crushes a rebel at a cost

SINGAPORE: Singaporeans need to have more babies. But success breeds selfishness


Launch CNN's Desktop Ticker and get the latest news, delivered right on your desktop!

Today on CNN
 Search

Back to the top   © 2000 Time Inc. All Rights Reserved.
Terms under which this service is provided to you.
Read our privacy guidelines.