Sulu is a really complicated place to be in, especially for journalists. I was there for just a couple of weeks in 2002 and met all sorts of people, from ordinary Moro farmers to rebel leaders. But my sense is that it is a place that is just too difficult to comprehend. The dynamics between the government, ordinary civilians, rebels, and bandits can be very confusing. What I learned there, though, was that the best thing a stranger can to do to learn about that strange place is to simply talk to people, even live among them for a while.
I don’t know what happened to Ces Drilon and the ABS-CBN 2 cameramen – why they were lured into the kidnappers hands without an inkling of what they were up against – but I can tell she had no sense whatsoever of what Sulu is all about. She was there purportedly to interview either the MNLF rebels or the Abu Sayyaf. I don’t know which. She apparently came into contact with Octavio Dinampo, a known local peace advocate. They hired a yellow Tamaraw jeep driven by one Marama Hashim and went off to Maimbung last June 8. Then they were intercepted by kidnappers along the road. A military agent named Jumail Biyaw was purportedly involved in the interception. By Monday, the kidnappers were demanding P10 million (it would later become P20 million) as payment for Ces and co.’s “food and lodging.”
I briefly met Dinampo in 2002 – he was among the hosts of our fact-finding team. I remember him to be a gracious, soft-spoken and learned man. He was with Concerned Citizens of Sulu at that time, and later on, according to Cocoy Tulawie, formed his own citizens’ group. He is also professor at the Sulu campus of the Mindanao State University and has been very active in peacekeeping efforts in the province. Last Monday, I got to talk to Cocoy who informed me that he had just come from Dinampo’s house and talked to his worried family – Dinampo had not returned since Sunday and did not inform them where he was going. Cocoy – who is a sort of civic leader in Sulu, having come from a prominent Tausug political family but drew the ire of the military for his human rights advocacy – also got to talk to some MNLF representatives who assured him they had nothing to do with the abduction and would help in the search and negotiations in any way.
It must have been a grave miscalculation on Dinampo’s part. He should have known, for instance, that they would possibly be in contact with the Abu Sayyaf, or some other armed units in Maimbung. He knew the place, was familiar with the dangers. On the other hand, I could not easily absolve Ces of her own miscalculations. Known to be a journalist who lives for scoops, Ces could have done much more than contact Dinampo. When our fact-finding team was there, it took, I think, the entire political machinery of the Tulawie family to ensure that the 20-or-so-manned team can comb the various communities of Sulu devastated by military operations. Arguably, a three-man crew is much more manageable, but if you have someone like a known media personality with you, you might as well flash a sign that says “kidnapin n’yo ako” in Maimbung. Ces could have been much more cautious.
On the other hand, I certainly cannot approve of the suggestion that journalists must go through the local police, or request their security assistance, when covering places like Sulu. For one thing, it puts some limit on journalists’ freedom of mobility, and can put undue pressure on the content of their stories. Imagine, for instance, if a journalist is investigating a phenomenon of human rights violations in a troubled area, and she has some bunch of policemen tagging along her. Would she be able to freely interview the victims? In Sulu as in many other places in the country, cops are as reviled as the military because they are the representatives and agents to the state that oppresses and then neglects them. In the case of the kidnapping of Ces and co., a military agent is purportedly involved. No surprises there. If journalists only care to listen to ordinary Sulu folk, they would hear about many Abu Sayyaf bandits who used to be Army – sarhentos and tinyentes to went Awol to earn easy money by joining the most lucrative business in town which is kidnapping. They would hear stories of collusions (e.g. Lamitan seige) and transactions done in daylight (AFP rifles, artillery, ammunitions sold to rebels and bandits). They would tell of how the Army runs roughshod over a community proclaiming to look for Abu Sayyaf and end up capturing or killing civilians. They would hear of ransom money ending up in the pockets of military officials or local politicians.
If Ces, with the resources of a big television station at her disposal, could have easily integrated herself with ordinary folk in Sulu and got those kinds of scoops that she had so longed for. Instead, she was lured into a very dangerous situation. I hope she and the others come out of it okay. Even as the ABS-CBN management declares it will not pay any ransom, I am almost certain that some something valuable to the public will be spent: either the ransom money coming from what Meralco earns from its soaring rates, or the public’s precious time watching those action-packed rescue operations of the military. In any case, when all is said and done and all the camera lights have faded, we will again be left in the dark about that complicated place called Sulu.