POSTSCRIPT / April 25, 2000 / Tuesday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Coming soon: The Great Escape of Abu Sayyaf!

EACH early morning, we scan the newspapers with trepidation to see if the Abu Sayyaf had slipped again through the military cordon reportedly tightening around that small sneaky band sowing terror on Basilan island.

The Great Escape is, of course, the recurring script of most major military operations against Muslim terrorists.

The press releases proclaim at first that the military is all out to get them bandits, is just a few ridges away from the main rebel mountain lair where hostages are being kept, and would have the bad men either dead or captured in no time at all…

…Then a radio flash report, later confirmed by press bulletins, says that the enemy split into small squads and had slipped though. There would be the added detail that the traditionally seafaring Moros had fled on boats via some untended breach…

…The embarrassed commanders promptly deplore the inhospitable terrain, the land mines and leeches, and the lack of armaments to match if not surpass the sophisticated weaponry of the foreign-assisted rebels…

…Somebody would then resurrect the line about the Ramos administration running off with that P10-billion fund supposed to go to modernizing the armed forces (meaning buying US military surplus)…

…And, if Congress were in session, there would be the usual noisy committee hearing that, like the military operations being probed, would see its own lawmaking target slipping through the congressional cordon.

* * *

WE’VE been to Basilan, and seen parts of it on foot and by air.

The island with its deceiving quiet could be pleasant for a weekend escape, especially if you’re a wealthy plantation owner who flits in and out of the rugged hinterland with a winsome companion in an executive chopper.

But for an ill-equipped foot soldier hacking his way through the unwieldy vegetation while weighed down by backpack and fighting gear, and ever exposed to sniper fire and mines, Basilan certainly is no picnic.

Even assuming the enemy is still far off, progress is at best only a few hundred meters per day (“per day” here means per that time the sun shines). Actually, limited ammunition notwithstanding, it is seldom that a soldier sees the enemy and is therefore reduced to random firing at bushes and trees.

* * *

LOOKING at the map, we wonder if somebody in the military has thought of going around the mountains or even around the island to make sure the windows or the backdoor of Basilan are barred for a possible Abu Sayyaf escape.

Remember Camp Cawa-cawa, the old Constabulary regional headquarters in far Zamboanga?

With a general and other top brass similarly held hostage there in 1989 (and eventually executed) by another Moro band led by one Rizal Ali, an incensed military threw all the military services, except the women’s corps, to assaulting the enemy holed up in the camp.

No less than the AFP chief of staff, then Gen. Renato de Villa of “teka-teka” fame, and several high officials trying to get into the TV camera range, were at the scene directing the shooting (“parang sine!”). If only there were a beach, the bombardment and the assault would have approximated the allied landing at Normandy.

Our troops quickly overran the front grounds at a signal, smashed through the buildings in impeccable Entebbe commando style — only to emerge empty-handed from the smoldering ruins when they ran out of bullets. No Rizal Ali!

* * *

TO save itself from further embarrassment, the military claimed Ali was also killed in the massive assault, but that his body was burned beyond recognition.

Days later, however, we scooped everybody by publishing a color picture of a grinning Rizal Ali safely ensconced in Sabah with a bandaged leg but otherwise intact and ready for another escapade. (Footnote: But Ali was jailed later by Malaysians, some say on representation of Manila, for alleged gunrunning.)

In planning the rescue of the military hostages at Cawa-cawa, apparently nobody thought of going to the back of the camp to grab Ali as he slid down the wall with his cohorts.

A furious military announced a P100,000 reward for his head. We noticed, though, that no price was mentioned for buying our rare picture of him. The defense department’s auditor probably wanted the warm body, bandage and all — not a color facsimile thereof.

* * *

THIS prompts us to ask: Will somebody please watch also the back door or the bay windows of Basilan? With everybody bunched in the orchestra pit in front, who is left to monitor the wings, the backstage and even the dressing rooms and the toilets while the bloody drama is played on center stage?

In the likely event that the Abu Sayyaf fighters do escape via the sea, cannot the Coast Guard and the Marina attend to their traditional role and see to it that the rebels’ boat sinks a la Don Sulpicio?

We know President Estrada has forgiven his enemies in the spirit of Lent, but can’t he dip into his bulging Sweepstakes, Pagcor, Lotto and Bingo funds and offer a tempting reward for the capture, dead or alive, of the Abu Sayyaf leader?

* * *

EVEN our national hero Jose Rizal (no relation to Ali) was said to have placed lottery bets, actually won, and raised enough personal pork barrel to launch a project in Dapitan, also in Zamboanga.

The robe of the crucified Christ was also the jackpot in a roll of dice, or was it a drawing of lots?, to decide who among the centurions would get the seamless clothing woven by Mother Mary no less.

Gambling is allegedly as old as Adam and Eve, if you believe ardent proponents of legalized gambling. Our first parents were said to have drawn lots to decide who would have the first bite of the forbidden fruit.

The publicists of government-sponsored gambling point out that we all take chances in this cruel world. Their tortured logic tells us that taking chances is itself gambling.

The point of all this is that, according to them, since we cannot stop gambling and since we also cannot stop the bloating of national and familial budgets, we might as well legalize syndicated gambling and cash in on it.

* * *

ERAP Estrada, who was caught once on candid camera betting piles of blue chips at the Pagcor gaming table while his bosom friend the house manager watched solicitously, wants to convert this only Christian country in Asia into the Las Vegas of the Orient.

Why not? Without him buying a ticket or placing a bet like the rest of us suckers, Erap regularly rakes in millions in unclaimed prizes and a percentage share that is skimmed from the winnings of government gambling houses.

This is the perfect racket. Millions in government revenue that normally should go directly to the national treasury for proper disbursement under a budget approved by Congress, instead go straight to the social fund of the President to be used as he or the Blessed Trinity of San Juan pleases.

* * *

A BULK of this social fund, to which Sweepstakes and Pagcor contribute heavily, are unclaimed prizes which run into dizzying millions that Erap wins without having to buy a ticket.

In Lotto, for instance, prizes not claimed within one year are automatically given to the President for his so-called social fund. Same thing with unclaimed Sweepstakes prizes.

One reason why there are tons of unclaimed Lotto prizes is that they have stockpiled substandard thermal paper (used for spot-printing tickets at betting stations) whose print fades after only a few weeks or months.

Many of these are minor prizes, including those corresponding to Lucky Pick (or computer-picked) numbers that bettors failed to check because the tickets had faded beyond recognition. Other unclaimed prizes pertain to lost or damaged tickets.

The Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office which runs Lotto does not bother to warn or alert bettors of prizes still waiting to be claimed. As the lost prizes pile up, the PCSO quietly shovels them to the waiting maws of Malacañang.

* * *

WHY the hypocrisy of a one-year period for claiming prizes when Lotto tickets fade and are rendered unreadable after only a few weeks? How can prizes be claimed within the allowable period if the tickets fade that easily? Bakit niloloko ang mga tao?

Who grabbed the fat commissions for ordering an oversupply of this substandard thermal paper?

Yes, bettors are warned against exposing the ticket to heat, sunlight, water and other adverse conditions to prevent their fading. But even if kept under normal room conditions, they do not last one year.

In contrast, I have a Lotto ticket issued by the New Jersey State Lottery on Jan. 16, 1997. It is still as crisp and its printed numbers are as legible as on the day it was bought more than three years ago. Our Lotto tickets should have the same integrity – unless there was a criminal Malaysian mind behind the racket.

* * *

REMEMBER also the short-lived instant sweepstakes where you bought a ticket and scratched the numbers to see if they matched winning combinations? This gimmick exploited the get-rich-quick streak in many of us.

For many reasons, especially amateurish marketing, the scratch-and-match sweepstakes did not click.

Insiders have told us that there is/was this bodega bursting with unused instant sweepstakes tickets printed by and bought from an expensive American company. Who got the dollar commission?

When will this government pretending to care for the masses stop sucking the blood of millions who are pushed into gambling by poverty and desperation?

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 25, 2000)

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