POSTSCRIPT / September 21, 2000 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Were hostages rescued or did they just escape?

THE escape of two French journalists from their Abu Sayyaf captors was a lucky break for the Estrada administration as the military campaign in Sulu dragged into its fifth day yesterday.

The recovery of the duo left the Abu Sayyaf with no more foreign hostages, except for the black American from Oakland. This gives the military more leeway in its operations that could harm the remaining hostages.

The big news about the escape stole the thunder from the massive protest action planned for today, Sept. 21, the anniversary of Marcosian martial rule.

President Estrada got an excellent chance to hurl back at French President Jacques Chirac the latter’s caustic comments on Mr. Estrada’s handling of the hostage situation.

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EARLY reports had it that, on their own, the two Frenchmen actually escaped from their captors. They were not rescued outright by attacking soldiers, according to reports.

In fairness to the military, however, it must be said that the pressure of search and destroy operations had forced the kidnappers to leave their sanctuaries and keep moving — giving the two Frenchmen a chance to slip away, hide, and walk to freedom.

Whatever were the circumstances, the escape of the two hostages is welcome news.

* * *

AS expected and as it should be, President Estrada has overwhelming public support in his decision to go after the Abu Sayyaf even at the risk of exposing the hostages to danger.

But it would be naive to assume that such support would last indefinitely. There must be a time frame within which the military must recover the hostages and capture Commander Robot and other Abu Sayyaf leaders.

The President has not told the nation how long he expects or wants the war to rage. He probably realizes that he will have a bigger problem if he announces a deadline and the military fails to do the job within the allotted time.

But having upped the ante and built up expectations, Erap Estrada now has no choice but to capture Robot and free the hostages in the next few days.

* * *

WE first sensed that Erap’s war is open-ended after noticing that his generals in the war room and the men in the field do not seem to know exactly where their quarries are — although they presumably have a general idea where the kidnappers and the hostages could be.

Note that the military lands troops and materiel, sets up camp, and then moves toward the forested hinterlands. If the soldiers meet resistance, they shoot. If all is clear, they keep moving until their supply lasts or is replenished.

Overhead, some plane swoops down and drops a bomb. Near the shore at scattered points, some navy boats are watching as far as the eyes could see, which is not really far even in fine weather.

* * *

UNTIL the fifth day of operations yesterday, there has been no reported contact or encounter with terrorist factions holding the hostages. Our troops are presumably still trying to locate their targets, a pre-attack requirement that good intelligence could have taken care of.

If some of the hostages, like the two Frenchmen, stumble out of the bushes, that’s a bonus for the hunters. A bigger bonus would be if they smell and dig out dollar hoards reportedly buried by the fleeing kidnappers.

* * *

WHAT we missed seeing was a fast, direct strike on the locations of Commander Robot and/or his henchmen — if indeed their hiding places had been pinpointed. We were dismayed that our troops go around in a general fashion instead of aiming right away for specific spots.

There have been unconfirmed reports of troops coming upon the abandoned camps of the kidnappers. But their quarries were not there, because there was obviously no updated intelligence to tell the pursuers where Robot et al. were actually hiding with their hostages now doubling as shields.

At the rate the search party is tramping through the wooded hills looking for telltale signs of the kidnappers and the hostages, this war movie might yet run forever. If it drags on, it could explode into a big problem for Erap.

* * *

THE Sandiganbayan must be congratulated for its courageous ruling forfeiting in favor of the government that part of the Marcos loot held in escrow at the Philippine National Bank now totaling $627 million (from an original $350 million).

The anti-graft court refused to be distracted by such irrelevant issues as the Marcoses needing $150 million from the PNB account to pay almost 10,000 torture victims of martial rule.

The logic behind the decision is simple: The $627 million is manifestly beyond the legitimate incomes of the Marcos couple. So, as the law mandates, it is presumed to be ill-gotten and seized outright by the government. Also under the law, recovered illegal wealth will be used for agrarian reform and for no other purpose.

* * *

THE Sandiganbayan also ignored the impertinent order of an over-reaching US federal court in Hawaii that $150 million be taken from the PNB fund and distributed to the torture victims of the Marcoses.

The damages awarded to Marcos victims must be paid all right, but since this is a private obligation of the Marcoses, it cannot be paid out of Philippine government funds even if President Estrada, a friend of the Marcoses, says so.

The Sandigan ruling was handed down by the court’s first division headed by Chairman Francis Garchitorena. It was penned by Justice Catalino Castañeda Jr. The third member is Justice Gregory Ong.

The decision will have far-reaching implications on similar cases of wealth amassed by government personnel that is found to be grossly out of proportion to their legitimate income.

* * *

CONGRESS should lay down a clear and honest policy for the guidance of government agencies and personnel intending to accept donations to help them perform their official duties.

Take the education department. While hundreds of millions are wasted on non-essentials and pork barrel, not to mention graft, Congress has held back funds needed by the education department to do its mandated tasks.

When fund-starved education officials turn creative and start accepting donations for official (not private) use, some lawmaker delivers a privilege speech to denounce the donation. Don’t members of Congress themselves sometimes accept donations?

Our lawmakers should slice the massive pork from the budget and move in earnest against graft and fund wastage so there would be no need for donations. Meantime, it should lay down a policy for such a gray area as private donations for government use.

* * *

WITH the price of crude oil expected to go even higher in the months leading to winter, the government should immediately consider reducing (not abolishing) either the import duty on crude or the specific taxes on petroleum products, or both.

The reduction of the price could be a temporary relief for consumers reeling from the successive increases in the price of gasoline and other oil products.

Aside from collecting a 3-percent levy on imported crude, the government also gets an average of 25.8 percent of the pump price of gasoline and other oil products. The government share in pump prices is 10 times the share of oil companies.

If the government reduces duties or taxes to force a leveling off or a reduction of prices, the cuts could be restored when the world price of crude goes down as it does seasonally.

* * *

THE 3-percent duty, which becomes part of the landed cost of crude, is applied on the Cost of crude oil, Insurance and Freight costs (or CIF).

The levy is provided in Section 6 of the Deregulation Law (RA 8479). The same section mentions that the President can reduce the rate whenever he deems it necessary. The rate is to be adjusted in January 2004 or whenever the WTO/AFTA Uniform Tariff Program is implemented.

* * *

ON the other hand, the specific or excise tax on oil products is fixed per liter and varies per product as follows: Extra low lead — P5.35; Regular gasoline — P4.80; Extra unleaded — P4.35; Jet fuel — P3.67; Diesel — P1.63; Kerosene – 60 centavos; and Fuel oil — 30 centavos.

This is one price component where reductions can be made with dramatic results. Congress itself can do it, or delegate the chore to the President under certain safeguards against misuse.

There is no excise tax on liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) because this politically sensitive fuel is used practically by all, especially the lower economic classes.

The excise tax rates are defined in RA 8184 (An Act Restructuring the Excise Tax on Petroleum Products.) Total collection last year amounted to some P30 billion.

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(First published in the Philippine STAR of September 21, 2000)

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