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Sabah hostage’s brother speaks of painful wait for his return [UPDATE]

[UPDATE 18 Nov 2015] 

We got the sad news yesterday that Bernard Then (one of the hostages from Sarawak) was killed by the Abu Sayyaf at 4pm (17 Nov). He is the first Malaysian hostage to have been beheaded by the terror group. 

bernard then hostage abu sayyaf screengrab

Screengrab from The Star

A severed head in sack with his name on it was found near a municipal council building on Jolo Island by a street sweeper. Then authorities cordoned off the area, and took the head away for preservation and DNA tests with Bernard’s family.

No one is sure why the Abu Sayyaf would do this while they’re in the middle of negotiating his release. Sources say it could have been because they didn’t meet ransom demands, or that the ransom amount was raised after it was paid. They wanted 60 million pesos (RM5.6mil) for the 2 hostages instead of 30 million pesos (RM2.8mil) which was paid to them. After that they released Sandakan restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun on 8 Nov.

[End of update] 

 

We hear about Abu Sayyaf kidnappings so often. As we’re writing this, the group is holding 2 Malaysian hostages Bernard Then Ted Fun and Thien Nyuk Fun (whom they abducted 14 May), on an island. Sympathetic to their plight, a bunch of kind Malaysians have started an online petition to appeal to PM Najib Razak to personally intervene in the matter.

You can add your name to the cause HERE.

Bernard Thien Nyuk Fun Sabah Sandakan Abu Sayyaf

Bernard’s wife and Nyuk Fun holding up pictures of their loved ones. Image from The Straits Times

Today marks the 137th day of their capture… an incredibly long time to be away from one’s loved ones. We contacted Bernard’s brother Christopher Then, to tell us the whole story.

 

Bernard was having dinner with his wife & friend when…

… 4 gunmen stormed into restaurant on that fateful evening. Originally from Sarawak, Bernard, 39, an engineer, and his wife Chan Wai See were in Sandakan, Sabah to visit a friend. They had arrived that morning itself (14 May). And then that night, the 3 of them went for dinner at the Ocean King Seafood Restaurant. It was a seaside restaurant on stilts, overlooking the sea.

Ocean King Seafood Restaurant Sandakan Sabah kidnap abu sayyaf. Image from The Malaysian Insider

The restaurant where the kidnapping took place. Image from The Malaysian Insider

“He sat facing the jetty. His wife and friend faced the kitchen. Towards the end of the dinner, the kidnappers stormed in from the kitchen.” – Christopher told CILISOS over the phone

The Star’s report described that one of the men was armed with an automatic rifle and had bullets strapped to his chest. Immediately, diners and workers started running out of the restaurant.

“The friend grabbed hold of Bernard’s wife and reached out to grab Bernard too, but the gunmen got him first. They pointed a gun at him and made his wife and friend stay back.” – Christopher

They took Bernard and the restaurant manager Nyuk Fun (50) and escaped to the jetty where a boat was waiting. Everything was done in under a minute! Watch this dramatisation of how it happened:

We thought it was interesting to note that these flers didn’t want to bring “extra” people along. It’s like as if they had already set in their minds the number of hostages they wanted, and just grabbed them while at it; scarily systematic, innit? As for whether they planned WHO to target beforehand, Christopher says there’s no way of knowing, but he doubts it since Bernard was just a tourist from Sarawak.

Police believe that the gunmen were led by brothers – Mindas and Kadafi Muktadil – who were negotiating a handover of the hostages to Abu Sayyaf commanders. Mindas has since died in a shootout with the Philippine military on 21 May (we’ll talk more about the Abu Sayyaf later).

 

Family members received a call the next day…

… which demanded an undisclosed amount of ransom.

Ocean king restaurant google map directions to Jolo

The hostages were taken to Jolo, the Philippines. Screenshot from Google Maps

Kidnappers had taken Bernard and Nyuk Fun to Jolo Island, Sulu, Southern Philippines. They were reportedly disoriented and scared, but thankfully unharmed. By then, their families had informed the police, who took over the case. Occasionally, the kidnappers would contact the family members:

“Sometimes they call twice a week and we can hear his voice. They would allow him to talk for a short while. He would tell us not to worry…that he’s ok…” – Christopher

What about their treatment? From past kidnappings, we’ve had ex-hostages testifying they were treated ok. One freed Malaysian Chan Sai Chuin joked that the ordeal helped him lose some weight. In other reports however, female hostages were raped. “That was the worst that happened there. It was quite surprising because otherwise we were treated quite well,” said Risto Vahanen, a Finnish hostage who was freed. But even if they’re not excessively harsh to the hostages:

“From what the authorities have told us, it’s difficult living conditions.” – Christopher

Still from Captive (2012) movie. Image from AV Club

The movie Captive (2012) about the Dos Palmas kidnapping shows what it’s like to be an Abu Sayyaf hostage. Image from AV Club

Christopher doesn’t know what goes on in his brother’s daily activities. Only that he communicates with the kidnappers in rough BM, and they give him simple vegetables and salted fish to eat. However, this diet is not good for the hostages’ health. Bernard has gout and he’s pre-diabetic, while Nyuk Fun has hypertension. They should be AVOIDING salty food altogether! Also, The Straits Times reported that Bernard often asks if medicine can be sent, especially for Nyuk Fun:

“I think Madam Thien’s case is more critical because she has hypertension. From what we heard, they were running around in the jungle [to avoid detection]. Such stressful conditions are not good for her.” – Christopher

 

Since the kidnapping, Bernard’s family has no peace

Bernard's parents and wife speaking to the press. Image from The Star

Bernard’s parents and wife pleading with the Government for help. Image from The Star

Bernard’s wife had her phone turned off and for a long time, they didn’t have any contact with the kidnappers until 22 Aug.

“They called my sister-in-law and said he is next to be beheaded.” – Christopher

A week before that, on 11 Aug, Abu Sayyaf militants had beheaded a Filipino village chief. Desperate, Bernard’s family went to the Deputy Home Minister Nur Jazlan Mohamed. But Nur Jazlan said the Government did not want to set a precedent of paying for ransoms, which seems to be the Abu Sayyaf’s way of financing its operations (more on this later).

So how to save Bernard and Nyuk Fun? 😥  We don’t know if it will help much, but Nur Jazlan asked the militants to release them on compassionate grounds. As mentioned in the start, ugaiz can also appeal by signing this online petition. The only thing they can do now is hope the police can successfully negotiate his release. Discretion is important in such circumstances and the family doesn’t know exactly what’s going on.

“It’s very frustrating. But they tell us they’re doing their best.” – Christopher

Think of the hostages’ loved ones! Bernard’s mother Vera Yam, 72, can’t eat or sleep well, as nightmares make her shout and cry in the middle of the night.

“Aiyo…my mom…she’s not doing well. My father, he’s a very traditional manand to seem him cry was heart-breaking. I had to leave the room. When I watched the video again, I couldn’t take it. In my heart, I hope no other parents will have to go through this.” – Christopher

He was referring to this video:

https://youtu.be/Xs1G_qD5AFc

But at the back of our heads, we wonder….

 

Why do Abu Sayyaf kidnappings keep happening?!

Like we said, we’ve heard about the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings too many times. Not just Malaysians…they also kidnap foreign tourists, etc. It’s SO bad that Jolo is known as the kidnap capital of the Philippines (Jolo is their HQ).

As for their repetitive assault on Malaysia, Nur Jazlan said they can’t predict when the kidnappers will strike. It’s like asking why robbery still happens when we have the police. The police cannot be in two places at one time, right?

“Authorities said it cannot be helped. They cannot be everywhere at once. They mentioned they’ve foiled 7 kidnap attempts before, though. My brother was in the wrong place, at the wrong time.” – Christopher

It’s just sad when innocent bystanders are made to suffer as the group furthers its agenda.

– – –

FYI: About the Abu Sayyaf 

The exact number of Abu Sayyaf members is not known, but the US Department of State puts it between 200 to 400, down from 1,000+ members in the year 2000 at its peak.

How did Abu Sayyaf begin? It was founded by Abdurajik Abubakar Janjalani in 1991 with seed money from Osama Bin Laden’s al-Qaeda. The thing is, they rely on ransom money from their kidnappings to fund their operations.

– – –

philippines military Image from Philstar.com.

The Filipino military has been cracking down on them. Image from Philstar.com

The Philippines doesn’t want them around any more than Malaysia wants the kidnappings to continue. They’ve deployed their military to fight the group and in 2009, even thought that they would wipe out the group before the end of that year. It’s now 2015 but the Abu Sayyaf are still around…but since their numbers have dwindled, there is progress.

Since Bernard and Nyuk Fun’s capture, the military has launched rescue attempts with once happening after the beheading of the village chief. During the firefight, 2 Filipino coast guard hostages were able to make a break for it. The most recent (and third) attempt was 23 Sep, but they had to abort the mission when Abu Sayyaf flers moved further inside the island.

We truly hope they’ll be able to rescue Bernard and Nyuk Fun soon and bring them safely home to their loved ones.

“We’re appealing for the PM to personally intervene. Police have successfully freed people before. We have hope.” – Christopher

Our sincerest sympathies go out to the Then family and our prayers are with them. Once again, here’s the link to sign the petition.

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