Although the Philippine military did eventually rescue Gracia Burnham, they shot also her in the leg and killed her husband Martin and the other remaining hostage Ediborah Yap. In the process they failed to capture a single member of the Abu Sayyaf. But why did it take them over a year to track down a tiny group of men operating in a clearly defined geographical area?
Gracia Burnham is generous in her assessment of the Philippine military in her book In the Presence of my Enemies: “I told [President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo] I wasn’t mad at anyone, and I wasn’t blaming anyone – except the Abu Sayyaf. I assured her that we had never forgotten who the bad guys were.”
Under the circumstances, that is a very charitable verdict. In fact it is hard to escape the conclusion that the feeble rescue attempts of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and their probable collusion with the Abu Sayyaf were largely responsible for the misery that that the hostages had to endure:
Lamitan: A few days into their ordeal, the military had the Abu Sayyaf and their hostages completely surrounded in a hospital in the town of Lamitan. Yet, inexplicably, after several hours of bombardment the Abu Sayyaf were allowed to escape out the back of the hospital. In the words of an official report into the Lamitan debacle: "It was an operation that turned into a fiasco that almost defies belief, displaying either military incompetence on a colossal scale or something a good deal more sinister." Check out this link to an Inquirer story on the “fiasco”.
Father Nacorda: Father Nacorda, a priest from Lamitan, says that Brigadier General Romeo Dominguez's aides carried briefcases full of cash inside the hospital and that this was connected with the escape. This has not been proved, but it seems a more believable explanation than the official military explanation that, in the midst of a hotly fought siege, the soldiers guarding the back of the hospital were called away for a “strategy session”.
Selling bullets to the enemy: Members of the military actually sold bullets to the people they were fighting. Most if not all of the 40 members of the armed forces who died in the campaign were probably killed by bullets sold to the enemy by their own commanders. This was one of the claims made by the Oakwood mutineers and is backed up by Gracia Burnham: “More than once I heard Solaiman on the sat-phone calling Zamboanga, talking to a lady named Ma’am Blanco. He would give her all his specifications for guns, bullets, you name it. ‘Who are you ordering from?’ we asked him one day. ‘Oh, the army,’ he replied. ‘We pay a lot more than it should cost of course. So somebody’s making a lot of money. But at least we get what we need.’ No-one in the military has made a convincing denial of these claims.
Splitting the ransom: When the prospect of ransom payments became more likely, the military became even more charitable, sending over rice, fish, coffee and sugar. In Gracia Burnham’s words: ”Why in the world did President Arroyo’s troops provide the Abu Sayyaf with their daily bread? We were told that it was because Sabaya [head of the kidnappers] was wheeling and dealing with the with the AFP [Armed Forces of the Philippines] general of that area over how to split up any ransom that might be paid.. Arlyn de la Cruz [a journalist who had visited the Burnhams] had warned us about that. ‘You know, this is going to be a really big deal’ she said ‘and everyone is going to expect their share’. Sabaya was willing to give the general 20 per cent of the action. But the messenger reported back that this wasn’t enough. The general wanted fifty per cent …”
Reluctance to pursue the Abu Sayyaf: Gracia Burnham notes on several occasions the reluctance of the military to pursue the Abu Sayyaf: “Oddly the AFP didn’t pursue us. As time went on we noticed that they never pursued. A battle was one thing, but pressing on for capture didn’t seem to be on their agenda. This was one of the continuing mysteries of our ordeal.” (p. 92) … “once again the military didn’t actually pursue us” (p. 179).