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Indian businessmen face kidnap, murder in Philippines

By Syed Nazakat in Manila

Ram Kumar lives near the Khalsa Diwan Gurdwara, on the edge of Manila, the capital of the Philippines. He returns from the day’s business trip to the city, washes his hands and face, and enters his room, whose walls are graffitied with phone numbers—his lifelines. The 35-year-old came to the Philippines struggling to earn a living back home in Punjab. Here, he first worked in a garage and then took to moneylending business. Now, he earns well enough to send money home. But the trade is getting trickier by the day. “You have to be careful with the people you deal with,” Ram said.

Indian businessmen in the Philippines are being increasingly kidnapped and murdered by Filipino businessmen and mafia. The country has an Indian population of more than 50,000, many of whom are into moneylending. Punjabis, like Ram, form the major stakeholders in the business. They lend money to local people who find it difficult to get loans from banks. Most Indians came here by the end of the 19th century and initially worked as vendors, drivers and security guards, before shifting to moneylending—some being in the business for the last 30 years.

“You know what happened to Paramjit Singh,” Ram said, referring to the young businessman who was recently killed by unidentified gunmen in Manila.

According to the Indian embassy here, 19 Indians have been killed in the Philippines in the last three years. In August last year, Gurmukh Singh, 41, went to a mountainous village in Antipolo City, 20km east of Manila, for recovery from borrowers. His brother soon got a call from a kidnap gang who demanded a ransom of two million pesos ($42,700), but the police rescued him. Gurmukh was lucky because the familiar script is different: Indian businessmen are kidnapped at gunpoint, taken away or killed on the spot. A bed of flowers is laid where they bled—a tender tribute from family members—followed by pleas to end the killings.

The most recent victim was 21-year-old Paramjit Singh, who was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Quezon City on May 12. A few months earlier, 38-year-old Devender Singh was abducted and shot dead by five locals, as he refused to give in to their extortion demands. Devender traded in electronic goods since 1991. Just a few decades ago, Manila boasted one of the lowest crime rates in Asia.

That changed when the Philippine economy crashed during the financial crisis in 1997, throwing millions out of work. In the years that followed, kidnappings, carjackings, rape, burglary and murder became a daily menace, creating an atmosphere of fear and suspicion in the streets. The situation has become grim, and the Philippines is poised to become the kidnapping capital of Asia, with small-scale ‘freelance’ kidnappers and politically motivated groups. Heavily armed cops are a common sight on the city’s roads. Heavy interest rates, up to 120 per cent, are one reason why the local people turn against moneylenders. Though the Central Bank of Philippines has kept no cap on interests, the Supreme Court has termed the interest rates “excessive and exorbitant”.

Even then, people here deal with Indian lenders more, since they are more reliable than the locals, irking native businessmen and the mafia. The Philippine police, however, say that there is internal rivalry among Indian businessmen. Though many Indians acknowledge it, they accuse the police of not doing enough to stop the violence.

“There appears to be no easy fix. These bad guys won’t stop. They get paid for it,” said an Indian businessman in Quezon City. Many Indians complain that they are the biggest victims of this lawlessness, earning enough to be robbed but not enough to buy protection. Indians, with hard cash, are easy targets. But the Chinese involved in the same business are surprisingly spared. The attacks on Americans and Europeans are politically driven and have less to do with money.

The Indian embassy has taken up the matter with the authorities and, according to an Indian official in Manila, some criminals involved have been caught. Karpal Singh, 43, has been here with his family since 1990. And it was time he left for work. Karpal hurried down the steps to the street, looked up at the sky and then at me, and said, “You know, right now I can feel that there is a risk in doing business here in the Philippines. But I’m optimistic about the future. You have to be optimistic, otherwise insecurity will hunt you, wherever you go.”

(THE WEEK, jULY 06, 2008)

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