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One Man's Meat

Published: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Monday April 14, 2014 MYT 8:24:20 AM

There's room for negotiation

Gao Huayun

Gao Huayun

The RM36.4mil ransom demand for the release of a China national abducted in Semporna is mind-boggling. But as in most cases, the asking amount and what they get is always very different.

HALF a billion pesos (RM36.4mil) is the asking price for the release of the China national abducted in the east coast of Sabah.

When Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi announced on Thursday that Filipino kidnappers had demanded 500 million pesos for Gao Huayun, a 29-year-old tourist from Shanghai, Malaysians were shocked over the huge amount.

The Home Minister said there was no ransom demand for 40-year-old Filipina resort worker Marcy Dayawan snatched together with Gao from Singamata Reef Resort in Semporna on April 2.

On Twitter, when asked about the huge ransom demand, I replied, “starting price” and “there’s still room for negotiation”.

I’ve got an insight in the business of kidnapping when I was in Zamboanga City and Jolo in southern Philippines to cover the Sipadan kidnapping. On Easter Sunday, 2000, 21 people – nine Sabahans, two Filipinos and 10 tourists from Europe, South Africa and Lebanon – were kidnapped from Sipadan in Semporna.

Lee Peng Wee, a Zamboanga City tycoon who made his money through seaweed grown mostly in kidnap-prone Philippines provinces such as Sulu and Tawi Tawi, managed to secure the release of two Malaysians.

At that time, Lee was the presidential adviser for Mindanao economic affairs and a buddy of the then Philippines President Joseph Estrada.

The tycoon, through his contacts in Jolo, managed to persuade the kidnappers – claiming to be Abu Sayyaf leaders – to release Sabah Wildlife Department ranger Zulkarnain Hashim on June 24, 2000, and police officer Abdul Jawah Selawat on July 14, 2000.

“How much did your boss pay for the hostages?” I asked Lee’s trusted aide over San Miguel beers in Zamboanga City in 2000.

“Not much. Just loose change,” he said.

“Why did he help to release the Malaysians?” I asked.

“Lee Peng has a kind heart. He likes to help people if he can help,” he said.

What was unsaid was that Lee was also generous in securing the release of the hostages, as he wanted to show President Estrada that he was the man in control of lawless Sulu (the province where Jolo island is located).

Two hostages with their “room and board” paid for and 19 more to go. Should be an easy task with Lee handling the negotiations, right?

No. Negotiations got murkier.

President Estrada appointed another negotiator to help Lee. That is where the problem started.

When Abdul Jawah was released from Jolo, there was even an attempt to “kidnap” him in Zamboanga City as the other Filipino negotiator wanted to claim glory for his release.

This negotiator even “hijacked” Lee’s contacts in Jolo so that he could release the 19 hostages without Lee’s help.

At one stage, the hostilities between Lee and the negotiator became so nasty that several of Lee’s bodyguards from the Philippines security forces were recalled.

There was also another motivation for Lee’s rivals. Millions in ransom money (for the non-Malaysian and Filipino hostages), bankrolled by Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi, was up for grabs for enterprising middlemen.

For the remaining seven Malaysian hostages, there was a competition among about 10 Sabahan warlords who wanted to impress then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad by releasing the seven with their so-called Sulu connections.

There were also many Malaysian conmen in hotel lobbies in Zamboanga City who claimed that for “X” amount of money, they could release the Sabahan hostages with the snap of their fingers.

I almost fell for one. A Datu (title from the Sultan of Sulu) claimed that he was paid for the release of policeman Abdul Jawah.

Warning bells began to ring in my head when he pronounced Jolo as “Jolo” and not “Holo”.

He also claimed that from a yacht moored near Jolo island, he hiked to Talipao then to Patikul to negotiate for Abdul Jawah’s freedom.

He got his geography all wrong. You have to get to Patikul first and then to Talipao.

Eventually, the official team of Tan Sri Abdul Aziz Shamsuddin, the then political secretary to Dr Mahathir, and Datuk Yong Teck Lee, a fomer Sabah Chief Minister, secured the release of the seven Malaysians.

“It was very difficult to get the Sipadan hostages out. Other than the region (Jolo island and even Zamboanga City) being lawless, it has always been suspected that elements within the Philippines military want a share of the kidnap loot.

“Just like in Manila, when policemen were involved in the kidnapping of rich Filipinos,” Yong WhatsApp-ed on his own negotiation experience.

Ransom is undoubtedly the main reason for the kidnappings in resorts in the east coast of Sabah.

I’ve been having an ongoing SMS discussion with Sarawak Land Development Minister Tan Sri Dr James Masing on the recent kidnappings in Sabah.

I agree with his views.

“The kidnapping in Sabah is reminiscent of Somali pirates’ modus operandi in the horn of Africa. Capture the ship then ransom follows. In Sabah, kidnap then ransom. If you give in and negotiate then the game continues. It is a new form of business using human beings as a commodity! Do not negotiate with terrorists or kidnappers! Go after them hard, and don’t take prisoners once they are caught! That would discourage the rest,” SMS-ed Masing, Parti Rakyat Sarawak president.

Next time, if I’m in the mood for telling grandfather stories over beers, I will tell you how we released the Pandanan hostages (abducted in 2000) without paying a single centavo.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Government, Courts & Crime, Don't negotiate with kidnappers

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