Wednesday, 27 September 2000

Crabs in a basket
By Bill Huang


With the Estrada administration's military campaign in Sulu now entering its second week, much is being made of the news blackout that has been imposed on the area, yesterday's military-sponsored guided tour of the area notwithstanding. And much ought to be made of it.

.....One wag has opined that the reason the operation has taken this long is not so much because the military is having trouble locating the Abu Sayyaf, but because it is having trouble finding the money. Which is good for a laugh, OK, make that half-a-laugh. 

.....But if that turns out to be true, then that's just one more reason to worry about the motives of the military, or of the administration that is giving the military its marching orders.

.....We may find ourselves among a tiny minority here, whistling in the dark, but we may as well ask whether the perpetrators of this most dramatic of local hostage-taking episodes have a snowball's chance in hell of being captured to face justice, rather than being shot to shreds or blown to smithereens.

.....Already, there are conflicting reports over civilian casualties, as the military claims only four dead thus far, while Southern Philippines Council for Peace and Development executive director Uttoh Salem Cutan claims that at least 200 civilians have already been killed and scores wounded. And there are questions about tactics, about why the military is pounding the stuffing out of the island with aerial bombing instead of undertaking a surgical strike against the terrorists.

.....One might argue that the news blackout is necessary for various reasons-the safety of the journalists in the midst of what the military regards as Abu Sayyaf territory cannot be guaranteed; the military doesn't want its movements telegraphed to the enemy through media dispatches; the military doesn't have the time to be looking out for the enemy and guarding journalists at the same time; and so on. And yet one might also argue that these are exactly the issues that require scrutiny by the media, if not other people and authorities.

.....What do the issues surrounding a media blackout have to do with solving the problem at hand, one might ask? It might seem to be a side issue to the big question of how to capture the kidnappers while keeping the hostages alive. 

.....And yet it isn't, if you consider that while the military has espoused the objective of keeping the hostages alive, the Estrada administration has made all sorts of noises about pulverizing, exterminating and/or eradicating the enemy. It is unclear then, what this government's order of priorities might be in this undertaking.

.....Perhaps the big question facing us isn't quite the big question facing them. And the sooner we know this, the better off we will all be.

.....In Sulu, the military is faced with an immediate problem to solve, and everything else takes a backseat. And yet, before we're accused of singling the military out, isn't that pretty much how other branches of this administration, and of administrations before it, have operated? 

.....History, it is said, is written by the victors. Except in the Philippines, where it tends to be obliterated by both the victors, who seek to put their own stamp on their times at any cost, and the losers, who regard it as their calling to stymie whatever the victors try to do. Much like the dog that seems to live just to chase its own tail. 

.....Or the crab pulling down other crabs in the basket. If you think about it long and hard, though, it's not really the fault of the crab. Consider that crabs don't pull each other down in open sand or sea. It's the basket that poses the problem.

.....As a people, we seem to be preoccupied with the present, usually reacting to it, in dire combat with it, so much so that the last thing on our minds is the process of preserving facts, information or history so we can study it in depth at some later time.

.....History and institutions are nothing more than nice words to a people who spend their time coping with situations and solving immediate problems. Even morality can be boiled down to situation ethics. Nothing is ever right or wrong. It all depends.

.....And so we find ourselves stuck in yet another basket, ready to throw away principles and other high-minded words just to get a job done, even if we can't be sure that we agree on what that job is.

.....It is time for the military to accept that it must end the news blackout in Sulu, and have media along for the ride, whatever the cost. There is much for all of us to learn about how things are getting done down there, and exactly what things are getting done. And perhaps we will pick up lessons not just for now, but for a long time to come. 

-Pan-Philippine News and Information Network