I won’t admit to having a foul mouth, much less a biting pen. But last week’s “explosive” event at Davao did give me a scare. Just a few days after I had written here about the scourge of kidnapping and ransom-seeking, masquerading as freedom-fighting inflicting both my home state of Sabah and the southern Philippines, an apparently terrorist bomb attack tore through a lively part of Davao, causing a huge number of casualties.
The attack was said to have been a ruthless retaliatory act against the Philippine government troops’ high-key mopping up operations against the insurgents on Jolo island. President Duterte might or might not have been a target of the bombing, but when the explosion took place, he was in Davao, where he was previously mayor for quite some time. But to me personally, this attack, so short after my latest writing, really felt like a “rebuke” from the “concerned” parties, showing off their “seriousness” in their undoubtedly armed and dangerous “struggle.”
In the aftermath of the explosion, President Duterte declared a state of “lawlessness,” supposedly a notch below a full state of emergency, but with enhanced law enforcement powers for the security forces. Many of us can, of course, understand that after a particularly atrocious terrorist incident, the relevant authorities would require more powers to facilitate their investigations and detection to prevent future occurrence.
Many other countries, which unfortunately underwent terrorist attacks in recent months, also took similar or even more drastic measures. France and Turkey, for example, went for full states of emergency after suffering their respective large-scale attacks.
At the same time, it is, of course, also equally important that the civil rights of ordinary citizens should be minimally disturbed, especially in a full-fledged democracy such as the Philippines. Indeed, despite enhanced security measures, a sense of “business as usual” must still prevail in the country generally, as there is nothing more which will embolden the terrorists who carried out these dastardly attacks than a sense of fear or pessimism dominating public sentiment. For that is exactly what they sought to achieve – to cow the general population into submission to their fundamentalist views and demands.
As neighboring countries, we do not envy the Philippines in having to tackle its various political and security challenges in the southern parts of the vast archipelago. There is, for example, an ideological divide, as with the communist guerilla forces who fought on and off for close to half a century. The recent rounds of negotiation in Norway between the Philippine government and the communist representatives are a realistic approach to try to reach a mutually acceptable political compromise that hopefully will cease the armed hostilities.
Perhaps far more intractable are the demands, sometimes for autonomy, at other times for outright independence, and in some instances even for conflagration of the southern Philippines and Sabah, to form or “restore” a defunct kingdom. The constant “breakaways” from more organized armed groups into smaller but more radical units would imply that it is very difficult to reach a conclusive and comprehensive settlement on these similarly shifting issues. Both military and diplomatic attempts appear to have been mired in the doldrums.
I am still of the humble opinion that at least parts of the roots of these conflicts are socio-economic in nature. The huge gaps between the haves and the have-nots, the vast differences in incomes and social status between the various strata of society, almost inevitably gave rise to tremendous resentment on the part of those who have less than enough. Many became potent targets for extremist recruitments despite the high risks involved, for they simply had little to lose.
In fact, with the myriad extremist information readily accessible on the internet, some even took to self-radicalization, seeking to be a part of a “greater self” of common believers, and often having to first commit “localized” but no less horrible terrorist acts before being admitted to the nucleus groups.
These socio-economic-turned-security concerns cry out first and foremost for measures to address the underlying problem, and that is abject poverty. More and well-targeted investment and development programs would need to be rolled out to create jobs for the able-bodied and basic welfare for the old and weak.
Government policies must be tweaked to create more incentives for businesses to invest in these high-risk and at least initially low-return regions, creating much needed jobs for the locals. When residents are more occupied with further improving their lots and those of their descendants, they are less likely to be swayed by extremist teachings.
Last weekend also witnessed the canonization of Mother Teresa. Many have expressed surprise that she had not until then been canonized, as her saintly and selfless acts of kindness over a long period of time in a strange land far away from her homeland, had touched people’s hearts from around the world. Many of these admirers and followers of Mother Teresa hail from different cultural and religious backgrounds. In Mother Teresa they saw perhaps the most kindred and positive of human spirits. These lofty aspirations continue to be sorely yearned for by a worldwide population besieged by both natural disasters and, perhaps more unfortunately, human follies.