July 14, 2004
The Philippine government is pulling out its 43-man contingent [down from the original 51] from Iraq as soon as possible to satisfy the Iraqi militants holding 46-year old civilian Angelo dela Cruz hostage; they demanded the Philippines pull out of Iraq by July 20th, a full month before its term of stay expires in August.
Newly elected president Gloria Arroyo had a tough decision to make. The choice might seem black and white but it's not that simple.
Relenting will save Angelo's life and she would have taken a stand against an unjustified war. However, this will be viewed as giving in to the demands of hostage takers and will cause the displeasure of the American government whose support is crucial in fighting the Philippines' own insurgency problem: the Abu Sayyaf in the southern island of Mindanao [responsible for several crimes, including the abduction of Martin and Gracia Burnham and the beheading of Guillermo Sobero, all Americans] and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, both said to have connections with Jemaah Islamiah, Al Qaeda's group in Southeast Asia. As it is, the Administration and other foreign governments have already criticized the decision.
Refusing will cause Angelo to die. She would've taken a firm stand against the hostage takers but is it worth it? The number of Philippine troops is so small it doesn't really make a difference if they stay or not; their presence is a show of support for American policy more than anything else. I doubt that pulling them out a month early would cause any adverse effect on the war, since the troops are limited to a support capacity and not engaged in combat.
Angelo has come to represent the millions of Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) who choose to toil in foreign lands rather than watch their families starve in the impoverished country. The income they send back to their families significantly supports the Philippine economy.
Not saving Angelo's life will earn the ire of the Filipino people who identify with the sacrifice he is making and have long resented their government's perceived inability to protect its workers overseas. They still bitterly remember Flor Contemplacion, a 42-year old OFW who was charged with murder and executed in Singapore in 1995 despite questionable evidence. The government of then president Fidel Ramos was blamed for not doing all it can to save her; protests erupted and a communist insurgency group even threatened to "punish" Singaporean and Filipino officials.
Arroyo couldn't afford the potential unrest, since she just won a hotly-contested presidential election. There is also intense pressure from the powerful Catholic Church which has been openly critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Church was instrumental in sweeping Arroyo to power twice, during People Power II when she replaced the corrupt president Joseph Estrada and during the recently concluded election. Its perceived break in position with the president will encourage further dissent from an increasing number of Filipinos displeased with Arroyo's all-out support for the United States.
If Arroyo refused to move the troops, it will be seen as the sacrifice of an innocent Filipino's life to support a powerful ally's immoral war. The daily protests that have rocked Manila so far may plunge the country into a security crisis that insurgents and separatists could take advantage of to further destabilize the government.
I am torn about this; I feel for Angelo and his poor family who have been going through this harrowing see-saw ordeal for more than a week. My initial reaction is for Arroyo and her government to do everything it can to secure his release, just like anyone would feel if it was their own family member's life in danger. But I am uneasy about dealing with militant hostage takers.
I have taken a stroll in the blogosphere and most are of the opinion that the Philippines' decision to pull its troops from Iraq is a selfish one that will embolden the militants to take more hostages and put other nationals at risk. I think it's unfair to put the responsibility squarely on one country. Each hostage situation is different, and in this situation, it is worth exploring all the options to save this man's life.
As of this writing, there is still no word of Angelo being released.
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