Kidnapped Pastor Released Unharmed in Northeast India

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Missionary and human rights activist had been held for two months by rebel militants.
by Nirmala Carvalho

MUMBAI, March 20 (Compass) -- The Rev. Tongkhojang Lunkim was released at 1 p.m. on Saturday (March 18) after being held captive for two months by the Kuki Liberation Army (KLA) in Manipur state, Northeast India.

Lunkim was released “somewhere in the Sadar Hills,” according to local sources. The KLA had requested that a number of leaders from Kuki social and student organizations be present for the release. Before handing him over, the KLA forced Lunkim to apologize for his alleged “anti-KLA activities” and made him promise to cease such efforts in the future.

KLA militants had kidnapped Lunkim on January 17.

“We are indebted to all the people who prayed for his safe return,” the Rev. M. Haokhothong, Lunkim’s son-in-law, told Compass by phone today. “I met Lunkim this evening in his home, but unfortunately he is too weak and unable to speak. He is on a glucose drip and a nurse is attending him.”

Haokhothong said the family had turned away many would-be visitors. “He has aged tremendously in these two months, so we are not allowing people to visit him. But we are so happy that he has returned home from his ordeal.”

Lunkim – a missionary and human rights activist – was a key spokesman for the people of Manipur. The KLA had reportedly demanded a ransom of 10 million rupees (US$225,692). One of several insurgent groups fighting for independent territories in the region, the KLA also kidnapped Rev. Lunkim’s son in 2003 but released him without a ransom payment.

A source who preferred to remain anonymous told Compass, “We are very relieved. Rev. Lunkim is a powerful Christian leader, who fearlessly preaches the gospel through his publications.”

As the leader of the Kuki Christian Church, Lunkim was also well respected and could easily mobilize public opinion. “His sphere of influence was a continuous threat to the KLA. Maybe they think they have succeeded in intimidating him to give up his missionary and human rights efforts,” the source added.

“This is fantastic news,” Archbishop Dominic Lumon of Imphal diocese told Compass. “Now that Lunkim has been released, peace can return to the valley.”

Local Christians were otherwise reluctant to comment on the kidnapping, for fear of reprisals from the KLA. Reports in the local Sangai Express and Imphal Free Press gave only the KLA’s version of events surrounding the kidnapping.

KLA Charges

KLA leaders said Lunkim had taken 900,000 rupees (US$20,231) from a contact in the Indian security forces to arrange a ceasefire between the KLA and the Indian army. The money has since been returned to the security forces contact, according to the KLA.

M. Vaiphei, information secretary for the KLA, said Lunkim had “tried to assassinate the KLA and all its cadres” by negotiating a ceasefire without consulting with the KLA in August 2005. After these alleged negotiations, “the security forces were pressed into repeated operations against the KLA.”

Vaiphei accused Lunkim of abusing his position as a church leader and human rights activist and sowing seeds of disunity in Kuki society.

He also said Lunkim was responsible for the formation of an elder’s assembly, the Upa Inpi, designed to guide or restrain an existing Kuki leadership body, the Kuki Inpi.

The KLA warned Lunkim to abandon these activities, and decided on “capital punishment” when Lunkim failed to heed these warnings. The decision was reversed, however – in accordance with Kuki customs – when family members and other social organizations appealed for his safety.

“Although we have shown clemency this time so that he can amend his ways, he will not be spared in the future if he continues with these habits,” Vaiphei warned.

Surprisingly, Vaiphei also said the KLA was grateful to Lunkim for translating the Bible into the Kuki dialect and for his contribution to Kuki Christian radio programs, which were broadcast from the Philippines.

Father Cedric Prakash, a human rights advocate who has worked for seven years in the Northeast, said he believed Lunkim had no choice but to obey the KLA.

“When your life is at stake and you are forced to sign written confessions in the face of grave threats from abductors, you are forced to give in to them,” he said. “There is no other choice or option available. This is what happened with the abduction of Rev. Lunkim.”

Copyright 2006 Compass Direct