FIRST PERSON - Alex Magno - The Philippine Star

Government declared the crisis in Zamboanga over, three weeks after it all began, even if sporadic gunfire continues to be heard. There is no dancing in the streets, however.

Instead, there is a growing sense this whole affair might have been handled differently, by statesmanship rather than by amateurism. On review, what happened is a fiasco by every measure.

Some draw parallelisms between the Zamboanga siege and the Luneta hostage tragedy. I disagree with those parallelisms drawn.

At the Luneta, the police at least assigned a negotiator — although he was undermined and countermanded by local officials. When it was possible to take out the hostage-taker, as protocol dictated, no one summoned the courage to give the order. When an assault was finally mounted, it was sloppy. People died who should not have.

In Zamboanga, at the very early stages of this event, no one recognized this was a large-scale hostage situation. No negotiator was named. Instead, all the amateurs flew into town to play generals, aching to claim the glory for having vanquished the MNLF in conventional battle.

The failure of leadership in Zamboanga is many times worse than at the Luneta.

However, this was an unconventional situation in every way. About 400 MNLF fighters held about the same number of civilians hostage. They were positioned in a thicket of buildings and homes, in elevated combat posts and familiar ground. The narrow streets rendered AFP armor useless. The human shields kept air strikes at bay.

Having failed to recognize this was a hostage situation rather than a conventional combat engagement, the order was given to assault the rebels frontally. This meant exposing the troops to sniper fire and forcing them to retake ground by conducting house-to-house fighting. That evened out the odds.

The standard protocol in hostage situations is to ensure the safety of the hostages even at the cost of allowing the hostage-takers free exit. In Zamboanga, that meant allowing the MNLF force safe passage in exchange for freeing all hostages. That was, of course, the expectation of the rebel force as well.

It might have meant loss of opportunity for striking heroic poses for the national leaders who rushed to the scene, although it would have meant the city and the lives of civilians would be spared. The direct assault meant many lives lost and entire districts leveled. This is exactly what happened.

When the decision for a direct assault was taken, the battle should have been waged around the clock (as in Nairobi last week) to bring the AFP’s superiority in men and arms to bear on a confused and exhausted rebel band. Instead, the fighting occurred in fits and starts, allowing the enemy to rest and reposition, prolonging the battle and raising the human costs.

The outcome in Zamboanga was inevitable. The costs, however, were eminently avoidable. The time it took to do it inexcusable.

I recall a vital moment in 1996, after the close of talks with the MNLF. I turned to the officer advising us and said: “General, we have defeated a tubercular army. There must be no celebration over that. It is peace we must celebrate.”


Customs commissioner Ruffy Biazon, two long months after the agency was publicly ridiculed by the President, finally did something dramatic. He yanked out all the senior customs collectors and assigned them to a policy think-tank under the control of the BIR.

This unprecedented step is certainly drastic. It is the equivalent of a complete blood transfusion at the BoC. The senior collectors behaved like the bureaucratic equivalent of shoguns, exercising absolute power in their fiefdoms. The most powerful among them were, in fact, referred to as the “Three Kings.”

By force of an executive order, a policy think-tank was created under the BIR. All the senior collectors have been assigned to that. There, imaginably, they will report for work each day and do barely more than clean their desks. Collectors are executives, not policy wonks.

This is the bureaucratic equivalent of Purgatory. In one stroke, the shoguns lost their power. There they will remain until retirement.

In addition, Biazon promised the full computerization of the BoC to reduce the margin of discretion available to collectors. That margin of discretion is a major source of corruption in the agency. Full computerization should have been completed two decades ago were it not for the resistance to it from insiders in the corruption-prone agency.

What an irony it is that we have fully automated our elections but not yet our customs procedures.

We certainly hope dispatching an entire generation of customs collectors to a virtual Purgatory will be the beginning of a flurry of initiatives to finally stop the epidemic of smuggling that is killing our economy. International agencies estimate underreporting and undervaluation of imports ballooned from an annual average of $3 billion previously to $19 billion over the last three years.

Every domestic business sector, it seems, complains loudly about the scourge of smuggling and the inaction in the face of it. Smuggled garlic, onions, rice, oil, steel and consumer goods flood our market, threatening to make our farmers and our manufacturers alike extinct.

If goods flow into our economy without paying customs duties, it goes without saying they evade VAT as well. That gives the smugglers tremendous cost advantages over domestic producers, killing off domestic employment. No wonder our unemployment rate is escalating.

If Biazon fails to bring to full stride the BoC reformation process and immediately curbs the smuggling, he should resign on paper and no longer via text message. He has an urgent task in his hands.











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