Monday, December 23, 2013

Asia & the Pacific: Update--US$300,000 Reportedly Paid to Abu Syyaf, Threats Abound

According to The Malaysia-Chronicle, a ransom of US$300,000 is believed to have been paid to secure the release of Taiwanese kidnap victim, Evelyn Chang, 58, who was ultimately held by Abu Sayaff gunmen in the notorious southern Philippines island of Jolo.

Though officials in Philippines and Taiwan have maintained that Evelyn Chang was snatched by Filipino gunmen from Pom Pom island on November 15, was rescued, the ransom amount was widely speculated in the Taiwanese media.

Chang's elder brother, Richard Chang Ta Kong, did not dispute the media reports when he said that his sister was not abused during her captivity and that the kidnappers were only after money.

Ta Kong, who was communicating with the kidnappers during her 36-days of captivity, did not speak directly about the alleged ransom payment made by the family to the kidnapper to secure her release. 

COMMENT: Chang's 57-year-old husband, Lim Min-hu, was shot and killed when abductors attempted to grab him during the kidnapping at the resort on Pom Pom, very likely because he may have resisted. Never RESIST gunmen!

In time, Evelyn Chang was left alone outside a forest area near Jolo's Talipoa village when a Philippines joint task force found Chang at 1600 hours on Friday (December 20) following an anonymous tip. 

Philippine officials familiar with the kidnap-for-ransom operations explained that the Abu Sayaff groups usually releases their captives once the agreed amount was conveyed through intermediaries.

The ransom amount itself was only part of the cost as they had to pay for "operational expenses'' for the intermediaries, while also watching out for other groups that might want to snatch high-value captives or even rob intermediaries transporting ransom funds.

As this posting is filed, there is still no independent confirmation that Evelyn Chang was exchanged for $300,000. Actually, there may never be, as each kidnapping has its own peculiarities where confirmation of a ransom is simply not possible.

I continue to be puzzled as to why seemingly well-educated, astute people seek out islands known for having a history of ransom-for-hire, particularly in close proximity to Jolo, a kidnapper's paradise! Do people with disposable income NOT conduct research on their destinations? 

Interestingly, it is entirely possible that if the Taiwanese couple had thoroughly researched Pom Pom, the Sulu Archipelago and Tawi-Tawi, a region dominated by Abu Sayyaf kidnappers, they might both be alive and well today, provided that they had NOT visited Pom Pom.

Kidnappings are a recurring problem on Tawi-Tawi, and clan warfare, beheadings and road-side bombs are all too common on the surrounding islands in the southern Philippines.

“If you are in central and western Mindanao, you should leave immediately,” states a recent travel advisory from the Australian government to its citizens. “If, despite our very strong advice against travel, you decide to visit central or western Mindanao,” it added, “you should put in place robust measures to ensure your personal security, seek professional security advice and take out kidnapping insurance.”

The United States, Britain and many other countries have had similar travel warnings for more than a decade.

Just beyond Basilan, in Zamboanga Sibugay Province, Warren Richard Rodwell, a 53-year-old Australian, has been held captive since his abduction on December 5, 2012. In July, a vacationing American, Gerfa Yeatts Lunsmann, her 14-year-old son and her 19-year-old Filipino nephew were kidnapped in a coastal area of Zamboanga City. All three are now free, and Ms. Lunsmann and her son have returned to the US. No one has confirmed or denied rumors that ransoms were paid.

Despite the warnings, two European birdwatchers decided to visit Tawi-Tawi in hopes of seeing the extremely rare Sulu hornbill. They were kidnapped on February 1 and remain in captivity. No doubt, their search for the Hornbill included an "extended stay" compliments, very likely, of the Abu Sayyaf.