Sometimes in life someone gives you a nudge towards an idea to write an article. Often that idea is overtaken by real events and even tragedy. That was certainly the case when RTTP suggested to me I may wish to write a piece based on the Philippines military launching an offensive in an attempt to capture Islamic militants in the south of the country. These foreign militants were reported as assisting their Abu Sayyaf rebel allies in bomb making techniques. These terrorists are said to have links to Al Qaeda extremists and to originate from either Malaysia or Indonesia. The Abu Sayyaf rebel group is based in the remote regions of Sulu province and the nearby island of Basilan.
The Most Recent Kidnapping of Foreigners
The real event and tragedy occurred just a short time after this military offensive. On Monday September 21 2015 gunmen kidnapped two Canadian tourists, a Norwegian resort manager and a Filipino woman from a resort on the Island Garden of Samal. The island is noted for its natural beauty, white sand beaches and a thriving diving industry. It was believed that the gun-toting terrorists used a banca or pumpboat to access the resort and make good their escape with the hostages to the island of Basilan.
Samal is close to the city of Davao in Mindanao and only takes about 1 ½ hours to drive the 45 kilometer route. Davao is a major city in Mindanao and home to a substantial number of expats. Samal to Basilan would take about 13 hours in a car to cover the 750 kilometers distance. I have no experience of sailing but I do know it would take quite a long sea journey to reach Basilan in a small outrigger boat. The island of Mindanao has been the scene of many years of insurgency by various Islamic groups based in the south of that island. Hostage taking has long been a tactic of these terrorist groups in order to raise funds by demanding ransoms be paid in exchange for their prisoners.
These terrorists in the south of the country are believed to be still holding a number of hostages including a Dutch bird watcher who was abducted nearly 3 years ago. The hostages taken in the raid on the Samal resort include two Canadians, one of whom lived and worked in the Philippines as a mining consultant, the Filipina wife of one of the Canadians and the Norwegian manager of the Samal resort. A regional military spokesperson was reported as saying, “ It appeared the foreigners were the targets, they were not taken at random.”
Foreigners Ignore Travel Advisories
No one in their right mind could condone any form of terrorism and in particular this incident of hostage taking. However it seems strange that foreigners appear to blatantly ignore travel advisories warning against travel in this part of the Philippines. I accept that different foreign governments issue slightly differing advice. For example there is a contrast between the advisories issued by the US and the UK governments. The UK government has a long history of erring on the side of caution when wording its warnings. On this occasion it appears to have been completely justified.
UK Travel Warning
It states in the simplest terms:
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to south-west Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago because of on-going terrorist activity and clashes between the military and insurgent groups. The FCO advise against all but essential travel to the remainder of Mindanao for the same reasons…….
There is a high threat from terrorism, including kidnapping ….
Around 133,665 British nationals visited the Philippines in 2014. Most visits are trouble-free.
You can read the full advisory by visiting the UK government website.
US Travel Warning
In contrast the US Department of State issued a more verbose warning.
Essentially it warns US citizens on the risks of travel in certain areas particularly the Sulu Archipelago, “certain regions and cities of the island of Mindanao and the southern Sulu Sea area.” It correctly identifies the risk reflecting the high threat of kidnapping of international travelers and warns against non-essential travel in the Sulu Archipelago. It goes on to warn about continuing to –
exercise extreme caution if traveling to certain regions and cities of the island of Mindanao. Separatist and terrorist groups continue to conduct bombings, kidnappings and attacks against civilians, political leaders, and Philippine security forces. In particular, the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) remain active in the Cotabato City area, and in the Maguindanao, North Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat provinces, where the government maintains a state of emergency and a greater police presence. There have been no recent reported terrorist threats or incidents within the Davao City or Surigao city limits. There have been no reports of U.S. citizens in Mindanao targeted specifically for their nationality; however, general threats to U.S. citizens and other foreigners throughout Mindanao remain a concern.
Canadian Travel Warning
In light of the fact that two Canadians had been kidnapped I also checked the advisory issued by the Canadian government.
It had been updated owing to the Samal kidnapping and said this:
There is no nationwide advisory in effect for the Philippines. However, you should exercise a high degree of caution due to an ongoing terrorist threat to Westerners and Western interests.
Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada advises against all travel to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (consisting of Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Lanao del Sur and Maguindanao provinces), as well as to the Zamboanga Peninsula and the provinces of Sarangani, Lanao del Norte, Davao del Norte, Davao del Sur (excluding urban areas of Davao City), Davao Occidental, Davao Oriental, Cotabato, South Cotabato, and Sultan Kudarat, due to the serious threat of terrorist attacks and kidnapping. The Government of Canada’s ability to provide consular assistance may be limited in this region.
It is a similar warning to that of the UK advisory but not as succinct and makes it clear that the urban areas of Davao City are an exception to the rule.
This is not a debate about the relative merits of the warnings from the US and UK governments. I am well aware of the fact that many of you reading this are American. You may be aware I am British. We have much in common and a shared history of standing together against the tyrants and the opponents of democracy. Our respective governments and brave military men and women are also in the vanguard of the struggle to contain and defeat Islamic fundamentalism and its associated terrorism.
However it has to be said that I do have a preference for the succinct wording of the UK warning as opposed to the somewhat verbose American advisory. It is extremely wordy and what is worse it is vague. It uses the phrase “certain regions and cities” and is not as specific as either the UK or Canadian versions. The use of the map by the UK government is to be applauded. It makes it ultra-clear where the two categories of advice apply.
Look at the map issued by the UK government posted above. The red denotes a real ‘no-go’ area. The mustard yellow says only for “essential travel.” In effect it really means ‘do not enter and if you must then at your own peril’!
The Philippines is Safe
I know that many of you living here in the Philippines will probably respond with a ‘he doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’ Fine – that’s your opinion and if you have lived safely in let’s say Davao City for many years of course I can see your point of view. But let us not forget Samal is only a short ride away from Davao City. It was the scene of a terrorist outrage only a few short days ago. Britain has quite a long history of suffering from terrorist attacks and the population has learned to be vigilant at all times. It may serve as good practice to be also vigilant at all times even if you feel totally safe in Davao City. Remember this – terrorists will strike where it is least expected. I wish the kidnapped foreigners all the good will in the world. I also wish that they had taken more notice of what the British government has been warning travelers about.
A final word to the potential retiree to the Philippines – this is a peaceful and wonderful country to live in. Of course it has its fair share of problems and personal safety issues. In this article I have highlighted the risks in Mindanao but it obviously does not reflect upon the Philippines as a whole. The people in the Philippines are noted for their charm, friendliness and hard work. I like many other expats have always felt both safe and welcome here. But I have no intention of putting my head in the lion’s mouth.