One Man's Meat

Published: Monday November 25, 2013 MYT 8:32:00 AM
Updated: Monday November 25, 2013 MYT 12:05:26 PM

Ugly business of kidnapping

It is understandable that family members of a hostage would want to see their loved one released as quick as possible but paying the ransom only encourages the crime to flourish.

Last week, the whisper among the intelligence operatives in Sabah is that the asking price for the Taiwanese tourist kidnapped from Pom Pom island is RM10mil.

When I heard that was the amount demanded for the release of 58-year-old Chang An Wei abducted at gunpoint after her 57-year-old husband Hsu Li Min was shot dead by Filipino gunmen in the exclusive island resort off Semporna town on Nov 15, I worried about the consequences of paying for her freedom.

I tweeted: “If ransom is paid for Taiwanese hostage abducted from Pom Pom, $$$ will be invested into powerful boats & guns. Expect more kidnappings.”

Intelligence operatives also speculated that Chang was on the way to Jolo or was already on the island, the kidnap capital of the Philippines.

Kidnapping is big business in Jolo.

Last year, in Zamboanga City in southern Philippines, I had a chat with Lee Peng Wee. The tycoon made his money through seaweed grown mostly in kidnap-prone Philippines provinces such as Sulu and Tawi Tawi.

He was instrumental in securing the release of nine Sabahans kidnapped in Sipadan and held in Jolo in 2000. The Sipadan kidnapping was big international news – 21 hostages were abducted, including 10 tourists from Europe and the Middle East.

At his residence where 12 years ago he and Malaysian negotiators strategised on buying the Malaysians’ freedom, I asked him how the situation in Jolo was.

“It is the same. They kidnap two and release one. They kidnap three and release two,” he said, referring to Filipinos abducted in southern Philippines.

“Kidnapping is easy money. These people do not have a steady livelihood.”

The typical modus operandi is: kidnap-for-ransom group will abduct rich individuals in southern Philippines and they then sell the human commodity to bandits (some using the name of Abu Sayyaf) in Jolo. The island is so lawless that it is a “holding pen” for hostages.

Many in Malaysia assume that the Filipino kidnap-for-ransom group only targeted the east coast of Sabah. Wrong.

On Tuesday, JV Rufino, the Director for Mobile for the Inquirer Group in the Philippines, tweeted a link to a Philippines Daily Inquirer story headlined, “Military: Abu Sayyaf behind Sulu treasurer’s abduction”.

In Jolo, Sulu provincial treasurer Jesus Cabelin was allegedly taken by a group led by Julli Ikit and Ninok Sappari, who is a member of the Abu Sayyaf, according to the Philippines Daily Inquirer.

It reported that Sappari was “linked to several incidents of abduction in the island-province, including the March 2012 disappearance of Indian national Viju Kolara Veetil and six health workers of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao”.

“The victims were later freed after ransom had been allegedly paid,” the report continued.

Cabelin was the fourth kidnap victim in Jolo since Oct 22. Kidnapping is common in the Philippines especially in Jolo and nearby provinces.

However, it is rare for these groups to operate outside of Filipino waters. If you count the numbers of actual kidnappings at resorts in the east coast of Sabah, there are only three – Sipadan in 2000, Padanan in 2000 and Pom Pom in 2013.

(This count does not include kidnapping cases such as the abduction of the cousins who owned a bird’s nest farm in Lahad Datu or seaweed farm owners in Semporna).

One way to stop kidnappings by Filipino armed groups inside Malaysian waters is to stop paying for ransom.

Ransom was paid for all the 21 Sipadan hostages except Filipino cook Roland Ullah who “walked out” of captivity in 2003.

The then Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi bankrolled the payment for European and Filipina hostages and Malaysian businessmen raised the money to free the Sabahans. (The ransom for the first hostage – a Malaysian – released was paid for by a Filipino tycoon who described to me the payment as “small change”.)

At the back of my mind during the Sipadan hostage crisis, I was worried that ransom payment would only encourage kidnap-for-ransom groups to launch more kidnappings in my home state of Sabah.

Nevertheless, if you were a family member of a hostage, you would understand that not paying ransom is an option you would not consider.

I’ve met the Malaysian hostages twice while they were held by the Abu Sayyaf and I’ve spoken to almost all their family members, so I understand the agony they faced.

The negotiation for the release of the hostages dragged until Aug 20, 2000, when the last of three abducted Malaysians were released. Less than a month later, Filipino gunmen raided Padanan island and abducted three Malaysians on Sept 10.

This time the mood from the top was “no negotiation” with the kidnappers. Kuala Lumpur had learnt its lesson – paying ransom for hostages only encouraged the crime to flourish.

The then Philippines President Joseph Estrada ordered a military offensive on the Padanan kidnappers in Jolo. The three Malaysians were released after 46 days in captivity following a military operation.

That was the last raid by Filipino gunmen on a Malaysian island until the killing and kidnapping in Pom Pom.

Paying for Chang’s ransom will only encourage more kidnappings in Malaysian waters.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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