ZAMBOANGA CITY: The Malaysian state of Sabah has shut down its cross border trade with Tawi-Tawi province in southern Philippines following the spate of daring kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) within its territory.
The closure was effected after Philippine authorities have failed to stop kidnappings by the ASG in the oil-rich state of Sabah, with four Malaysians as its latest victims.
The Abu Sayyaf also kidnapped 10 Indonesian sailors on March 26 off Tawi-Tawi, several nautical miles off Sabah.
Recently, two military generals were sacked for failing to stop the Abu Sayyaf kidnappings inside Sabah. The ASG in the past beheaded a Malaysian hostage in Mindanao and killed a maritime policeman in a raid on a popular resort in Sabah.
There was no immediate statement from the Philippine National Police (PNP) in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) or the military’s Western Mindanao Command on the closure of the Sabah border. The Department of Foreign Affairs also did not release any statement.
But lawyer Laisa Alamia, ARMM Executive Secretary, has confirmed Malaysia’s closure of its border in protest over the kidnappings. She said the shutting down of the border has affected economic activities in Tawi-Tawi, where traders buy goods from Sabah and sell them back home.
“There is an underground economy that we call smuggling, but for the people there, it is regular barter trading. There are no taxes paid, they go to Sandakan in Sabah by boat and sold their goods there and the same time, buy products at the lowest prices,” Alamia said.
Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman said the decades-old barter trade activity in Sandakan and other eastearn coastal towns was to be stopped immediately, according to the Jakarta Post, which reported that this was among several measures agreed by the Cabinet during a meeting on April 6, four days after a group of gunmen on a speedboat intercepted the tugboat MasFive 6 near Ligitan Island off Semporna and abducted its crew.
The cross-border closure took effect on April 9.
The report said that other measures include the immediate halt of transshipment trade of petroleum and gas products in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone spanning 10 districts from Kudat to Tawau. Musa also imposed a maritime curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in seven coastal districts from Beluran to Tawau.
Musa also ordered security forces to seize any foreign motorized boats in Sabah waters. He said security forces would also give protection to merchant boats sailing in high-risk areas in Sabah, particularly near the Philippine border.
He also shelved proposed ferry services – to start in May – between Kudat in Sabah and Palawan province in the Philippines, adding that the strict measures reflected Sabah’s resolve to rid the east coast of the menace posed by kidnap-for-ransom groups based in the Southern Philippines.
“The state government takes these kidnappings very seriously. The new measures to be taken will ensure this problem can be dealt with effectively,” Musa said.
“We are also studying in-depth prevention and rectification measures to deal with hijacking and kidnapping involving merchant ships in high-risk waters. The security forces are currently looking into how we can provide better security protection for ships in these waters. However its implementation requires cooperation from all ship owners to enable effective coordination,” he added.
Kuala Lumpur has in the past paid huge ransoms to the Abu Sayyaf in exchange for the safe release of its Malaysian hostages, and this goes back to 2000, when jihadists kidnapped 21 mostly European and Malaysian hostages from Sipadan resort, up to last year, to save the lives of its citizens.