It is no secret that the eastern coasts of my home state of Sabah neighboring the Philippines are frequently harassed by self-styled “freedom fighters.” Their avowed goals range from creating a self-governing homeland for the Muslims in the southern Philippines, to declaring outright independence for the same, and even to reviving the now defunct Sulu Sultanate encompassing the southern Philippine islands, as well as Sabah.
The so-called “Sulu Invasion of Sabah” was perhaps the culmination of that last, outlandish goal of past imperial “glories.” (The incident took place three years ago, whereby heavily armed groups allegedly affiliated to some self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu landed on Sabah shores and, after negotiations failed, engaged in sporadic exchanges of fire with Malaysian security forces and subsequently vanished, seemingly without a trace.)
On the other hand, the authorities of both countries, to their credit, righteously condemn these marauding groups as masqueraded “terrorists.” Indeed, many dastardly acts committed by cruel and unfeeling members of these groups, such as torture and beheading of hostages and prisoners of war alike, were truly revolting affronts to civilized modern human conscience. These cruel acts are similar to those performed by elements of the much feared Islamic State (IS) worldwide terrorist umbrella, to which some of these “local” groups also pledge allegiance.
Parts of the aim of such deliberately bloody orchestrations were, of course, attempts to instill fear into both the relevant authorities, as well as the general populace as to the unwavering resolve of these groups in pursuing their eventual, supposedly “lofty” (in their eyes) goals.
However, in actuality, perhaps neither of these contrasting characterizations of these dangerous groups is truly correct. These incessantly voracious groups should most aptly be called “money seeking armed elements,” for they quite transparently make a living out of hefty ransoms from their numerous kidnapping cases, traditionally mostly along the coasts of Sabah, but increasingly around the southern Philippines as well. Sabah is blessed with quite a number of islands, around which are located some of the best diving spots in the world. Many tourists and diving enthusiasts from across the globe flock to these places to enjoy the fantastic sceneries both above and under the water. And the predatory groups see “golden” opportunities there, kidnapping sometimes at random and other times selectively, tourists and other “high-value” targets, and seeking horrendous amounts of ransom in exchange for release.
Bargaining with them, often through middlemen, over the ransom “prices” sometimes go awry, and the aforementioned inhumane acts often serve more as crude reminders of non-compliance of ransom requests, rather than as instruments of fear to achieve higher goals. When these groups are successful in making off with their loot, they often quiet down for a few months, before money dries up, and then they go out to the open sea to prowl with greedy eyes again.
For at least half a century, these piratic groups have been roaming the Sulu Sea and beyond, creating havocs which, nevertheless, could not be adequately countered by either country. This is mainly because the sea boundaries are relatively close to the mainland coasts of either country, and there are numerous islands dotting the maritime boundary regions that can serve as hideouts or even depots for these armed groups.
A typical kidnapping example would be the armed gang approaching shorelines by speed boats, grabbing the kidnap victim “efficiently” in minutes if not seconds, and speeding off across maritime boundary lines in tens of minutes, leaving the law enforcement teams of the country concerned hapless, not being able to cross maritime boundaries in hot pursuit for worries of instigating international misunderstanding. Even if the law enforcement teams of the corresponding country respond to their counterpart’s call for assistance, the facts on the ground are such that the piratic gangs are usually able to weave among the islands which they know intimately as their hideouts, and crisscross national boundaries “skillfully” and repeatedly, evading capture or annihilation by either country.
Now even a third country, Indonesia, is concerned about the dire situation in these essentially pirate-infested waters, which, of course, border its Kalimantan waters. We should, of course, welcome the recently concluded tripartite arrangements for enhance intelligence exchanges on these armed groups, better hotline communication channels, and even joint naval patrols in these dangerous waters. If it were up to me, I would even call upon the United Nations Security Council to pass an emergency resolution to form an international patrol fleet, such as the ones off the coast of Somalia and in the Gulf of Aden to ward off the primarily Somali pirates. Drastic situations demand drastic, international response.
Some have called for the acceleration of yet further rounds of peace talks with the southern separatist groups in the Philippines, such that a hopefully even more final solution to the separatist issue could help alleviate the piratic circumstances. I think this is at best partially helpful. Such peace solutions must be supplemented by improvements in local socio-economic conditions on the one hand, so that there is less incentive to go rogue, and forceful transnational law enforcement cooperation to root out the remaining, profit-motivated trouble-making elements.
Only then, hopefully, would Sabahans be able to sleep tight.