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One Man's Meat

Published: Saturday August 29, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday August 29, 2015 MYT 7:09:54 AM

Torn between the negotiators

I have seen groups claiming credit for releases for which they were not responsible, and groups marking up the ransom so that they could take a cut.

THE threat of beheading hangs over the head of Malaysian hostage Bernard Then, held on the notorious Jolo island in southern Philippines.

The 39-year-old Sarawakian’s Abu Sayyaf captors have threatened to behead him if their millions of ringgit ransom is not paid.

On Aug 22, about 100 days since Then and 50-year-old restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun were abducted by Abu Sayyaf-linked gunmen from a floating restaurant in Sandakan, about 333km west of Jolo, Then’s 40-year-old wife Chan Wai See received a chilling call.

Chan had switched off her mobile phone for months as the police advised her not to be in contact with the gunmen.

However, on Aug 21, she switched it on after reading media reports about the beheading of a Filipino hostage.

The next day she received a call from the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo at about 5pm. Her husband spoke to her for less than a minute.

“He said he was next in line to be beheaded.

“The kidnappers then snatched the phone from him and told me they would behead him if the ransom was not paid quickly.

“The line then got cut off,” said Chan, who was on holiday in Sandakan with her husband when he was abducted.

She said the line was very bad and that the gunman on the other end of the phone spoke in Malay.

After the abrupt call, Chan felt her heart sink and she slumped onto a chair in her house. Numbness took over when she realised that the line was cut before she could even think of what to ask or say.

“Reality sank in ... and I realised time is not what I have. I’m helpless.

“I fear for my husband’s life. I was so afraid and sobbed uncontrollably,” the technical executive told me via WhatsApp on Thursday.

“What kind of people would do such things to a fellow human being? There are no nights for me without nightmares and cold sweat.

“I hope no one will ever go through what I am going through. It is just such a terrifying situation.”

“Do you think your husband will be released?” I asked.

“I’m praying very hard and I believe that Bernard will be released if our Government helps him,” she said.

The Government, she said, had told her to be patient as it was working hard to secure the release of the two Malaysians.

“Do you have any idea of the negotiation process to release the hostages?” I asked.

“I don’t know anything about the negotiation.

“The authorities have told me repeatedly to be calm, patient and to trust them to bring both hostages home safely,” she said.

If Chan had asked me, I would have told her that negotiating to secure the release of the hostages is usually filled with double-dealings and double-crosses.

I had an insight into kidnap negotiations when I was in Zamboanga City and Jolo to cover the Sipadan kidnapping.

On Easter Sunday in 2000, 21 people – nine Sabahans, two Filipinos and 10 tourists from Europe, South Africa and Lebanon – were abducted from Sipadan in Sabah.

There were at least 10 Malaysian groups represented by politicians, businessmen and conmen who were trying to impress the then Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad that they could secure the release of the Sabahans.

I saw how some groups claimed credit for releases for which they were not responsible. I also saw that some groups marked up the ransom so that they could take a cut.

Fifteen years later, my intelligence sources have told me that the situation has not changed.

A Philippine intelligence source told me that a group of Malaysian/Filipino negotiators, that secured the release of most of the hostages held in Jolo after they were abducted from the east coast of Sabah, had received a commitment from the Abu Sayyaf gunmen to release Then and Thien for a certain manageable amount.

According to the intelligence source, if the powers-that-be ordered for the money to be paid to buy the freedom of the two Malaysians, they would be released as soon as possible.

However, the Filipino source said he had received intelligence reports that there was another Malaysian/Filipino group trying to negotiate for the release of the two Malaysians.

“This group is not negotiating directly with the Abu Sayyaf gunmen as they have not established trust with them.

“They will go through (a warlord on Jolo island) and the ransom will be higher than what the other group had negotiated.

“This is because the warlord will be asking for a cut as he needs to build his war chest for the Philippine elections in 2016,” he said.

“If the powers-that-be decide that the second group will negotiate for the Malaysians, I’m worried that the ransom would be higher and it will be too expensive to buy the hostages’ freedom,” said the source.

“What are the chances that the second group will be able to bargain for the release of the hostages?” I asked.

“I doubt it. I hate to bring back a dead body, the stench,” said the Filipino intelligence source, referring to 34-year-old Malaysian Tung Wee Wei, who died of illness while the Abu Sayyaf gunmen held him hostage in 2013.

Internal rivalry among spy masters might put the lives of the Malaysian hostages in danger.

Tags / Keywords: Philip Golingai, columnist

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