January 24, 2018, 1:50 am
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‘Generally peaceful and uneventful’

IT’S a standard joke among reporters covering the Philippine National Police: whenever asked for an assessment of the peace and order situation after Holy Week or All Souls’ Day. the standard reply is “generally peaceful and uneventful” no matter what may have actually transpired over the long break. It’s jargon easily understood by reporters and public information officers across the country, and makes for easy communication. To be fair, the phrase does describe most observations of Holy Week in the past years.

Predictably, PNP Chief Ronaldo dela Rosa used the oft-repeated phrase to describe this year’s Holy Week exodus. It was accompanied by a pat on the back for the public for cooperating with our security forces, whose efforts “ultimately resulted in the uneventful and generally peaceful Holy Week.”

Despite Bato’s statement, Holy Week 2017 was far from being uneventful. The populace woke up to news of a firefight between members of the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG), Armed Forces of the Philippines, and the PNP in Inabanga, Bohol. The most jaded of us would have probably glossed over the news reports, saying it was nothing new, except that the security and defense junkies did not miss an all-too important jarring detail: the presence of the ASG in Bohol. Yes, in Bohol, land of tarsiers and white sand beaches, where foreign and domestic tourists alike go to see the famous Chocolate Hills.

The Department of Tourism, though visibly shaken, quickly issued a statement to assuage fears of terror activities in Central Visayas, aware that an incorrect response to the matter could spell a dip in tourist arrivals. Visitors in Bohol were treated to an unfamiliar but assuring sight: soldiers with high-powered firearms walking along the shore of Bohol’s pristine beaches. As we speak, the military is still hunting down ASG militants, leaving residents to evacuate to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. For all intents and purposes, life has not returned to normal in Inabanga, with the AFP establishing check points to net the bandits. Local officials have also chimed in the chorus of assurances, with Governor Ed Chatto saying that thus far, the local tourism industry has remained unaffected, with most establishments at 80% to 90% occupancy.

The dichotomy of Bohol’s current situation is pictured best by news footage from Inabanga and Panglao. In Inabanga, residents are huddled in evacuation centers, surrounded by soldiers; military personnel are going from house to house, holding up photos of the suspects. Meanwhile, vacationers in not-so far away Panglao go about their holiday with little fear, despite knowing about the tense situation on another side of paradise. 

This comes at the heels of separate travel advisories issued by the United States and France, warning its citizens of travel to Central Visayas. While the Philippines is no stranger to travel advisories, it is easily understandable how its issuance can be a sensitive matter to governments relying on tourism. In truth, there is a considerable back-and-forth between the host and the issuing country before the issuance of an advisory: security briefings, intelligence sharing, diplomatic negotiations, all intended to prevent the issuance or afford the host enough time to prepare for its repercussions.

Incidentally, another black eye to Dela Rosa’s “generally peaceful and uneventful” assessment comes yet again from the ASG, this time for the alleged beheading of one of its Filipino hostages, Noel Besconde, last Maundy Thursday. The ASG held Besconde for over a year before he was killed, with the military saying that Besconde had become sickly and therefore, a liability to the group’s constant cat-and-mouse with dragnet operations.

For sure, the presence of the ASG in Central Bohol is a thorn in the AFP’s side, as they have largely been able to keep the ASG at bay and far from wreaking havoc in most urban areas. It bears watching whether the presence of ASG in Bohol is a fluke or indicative of its expansion to other areas in the country. It’s been a while since an area outside Mindanao has been included in country travel advisories, and is certainly a cause for concern.

Whether we like it or not, terrorist activities pose extreme danger not only to life and limb but also to economic progress. Tourism is the first to suffer whenever there are security issues, as seen in the case of Paris in 2016, and the Brussels lockdown in 2015. While Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo has so far remained mum on the situation since her ill-conceived plea for journalists to “tone down” on their reporting of the nightly extra-judicial killings, for sure she and her team have their plates full with trying to control the fallout from the recent ASG activities.

One wonders whether President Rodrigo Duterte’s recent turnaround on needing the help of the United States on fighting terrorism is a tell-tale sign of the state of affairs when it comes to our anti-terrorism efforts. Mr. Duterte must already be feeling the strain caused by his actions, especially when it comes to intelligence sharing with the US military. How long the strain will last is anybody’s guess.

Issues facing government are not always about two sides. Abigail Valte’s law background and deep dive into government provides insight on its inner workings and what factors go into policy decision making. Her once a week column is an incision on current political and social issues.

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