Why Bernard Then was beheaded
"I'M trying to confirm if Bernard Then (pic) was beheaded 4pm today," a reliable source in Jolo SMS-ed me at 7.08pm on Tuesday.
I was driving in Kuala Lumpur when I received the shocking news.
"Please do update me. Thanks," I SMS-ed. Two minutes later, I messaged: "Hope it is not true."
I cut the message and pasted it to my group called Shaw Brothers on Threema, a secure messaging app I use when discussing sensitive matters.
"Oh god," said my colleague Muguntan Vanar.
"I hope it is not true," I said.
"I am now checking from our side," said Muguntan.
"Better not over-check as we might start a rumour and the rumour will be confirmed because we over-checked," I said.
"Sir, find out from X in Zamboanga City," said my colleague P.K. Katharason.
"Sir PK, I don't want to check as I don't want to start a rumour," I said.
When I arrived home, I told my wife Vera about the SMS from Jolo.
"I don't think that the information is true. The conventional wisdom is the captors will not kill a hostage. What's the point of killing a hostage? You are killing one million, two million or three million ringgit," I said.
At 7.55pm, Muguntan sent, "Confirmed", to the Shaw Brothers group.
"My god," I said.
Devastated, I said a silent prayer for the first Malaysian hostage to be beheaded. I told myself to mourn only after finishing my job reporting the bad news.
The beheading killed the conventional wisdom that a hostage will not be executed because he's a commodity. Now there is a chance that a hostage abducted from the east coast of Sabah might not return home alive.
On May 15, Then, a 39-year-old Sarawakian, and restaurant manager Thien Nyuk Fun, a 50-year-old Sabahan, were kidnapped by Filipino gunmen at Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan. The kidnappers brought them via boat to Jolo island in southern Philippines.
On Nov 8, negotiators were to exchange 30 million peso (RM2.7mil) for the freedom of Thien and Then. The initial agreement was that amount for the two.
In the captors' hideout, Thien and Then were asked to pack their belongings as they would be freed.
However, a faction in the Abu Sayyaf group (ASG) demanded more. Thien was released for 30 million peso and the captors were to negotiate for more money for Then.
This scenario has been verified by intelligence sources in Malaysia and the Philippines. What happened next is still misty.
Why was Then beheaded? Something horrible must have happened during the negotiation.
According to commander Joint Task Group Sulu Brig-Gen Allan Arrojado, the Philippine military planned and delivered air rocket fire at ASG locations in Bud Taran, in Jolo island, from 2.40pm to 4pm on Tuesday.
"It was reported that ASG hastily dispersed during rocket fire and shelling. It appears that the beheading pushed through almost simultaneously with the bombardment," said Arrojado.
Intelligence sources in southern Philippines told me that it was unlikely the military operation led to Then's beheading.
The theory was Then, who had gout and had lost his spectacles, was killed because he slowed down his captors who were being pursued by the military.
"Every three days, the military will launch 105mm mortars at the ASG hideouts. Even if there's no Abu Sayyaf there and only innocent people, they will bomb the areas," said a Filipino intelligence source.
Most likely - and this is corroborated by intelligence and security expert sources who told me slightly different but similar information - Then was murdered because of failure to meet the ultimatum given by the Abu Sayyaf to the negotiators on the day Thien was released.
The captors gave the negotiators nine days to give them ransom money which they believed was brought to Jolo but pocketed by Filipino politicians acting as middlemen in the negotiations.
"The ASG monitored that 60 million peso (S$890,000m) was brought to Jolo but only 30 million peso was given to them by the negotiators," said an intelligence source in Jolo.
I checked with several sources in Malaysia and they believed the allegation that millions of peso was pocketed was a vicious rumour because only 30 million peso was smuggled into Jolo.
When no ransom money was delivered, Then was beheaded.
"But why was Bernard beheaded?" I asked the intelligence source based in Jolo. "Why kill him when he is worth at least 30 million peso?"
"The ASG is angry that the politicians keep on pocketing the ransom money in kidnapping cases," the source said.
I spoke to Jolo police chief Major Junpikar Sitin. He said it was unconfirmed that the severed head recovered in Jolo town was Then's.
A source, who does research on conflict areas in Jolo island, sent me a side view photograph of the head. It was difficult to ascertain whether it was Then's. But definitely, it belonged to a Chinese man.
On Wednesday morning, while I was on WhatsApp messaging with Christopher, Bernard's brother, I started to sob uncontrollably. I had a delayed reaction to his murder. I felt a pain in my heart.
What I felt was just a fraction of what his family was feeling, however.
Christopher WhatsApp-ed me: "Can the authorities, including the Special Branch and those in position to help, answer this question with a clear conscience. Did they do all they could to secure the safe release of Bernard?
"We were assured everything was in good hands and were told that all the kidnappers want is money and would not harm the hostages. Did the authorities take the matter lightly?
"How come it has now come to a tragic end? No amount of sympathy from the authorities will ever change the fact that my brother died senselessly under their watch.
"We hope that in his final moments, he knew that his family loved him unconditionally. May he rest in peace."