ZAMBOANGA CITY: The Malaysian state of Sabah has shut down its border with Tawi-Tawi province in southern Philippines, following a spate of daring kidnappings by the jihadist group Abu Sayyaf inside its territory, according to a recent article in The Jakarta Post.
This was among several measures agreed upon by Sabah’s Cabinet at their April 6 meeting, the Indonesian daily reported, 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 article quoted Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman as saying that the decades-old barter trade activity in Sandakan and other east coastal towns was to be ceased immediately, following the kidnapping of MasFive 6’s Wong Hung Song, 44; Wong Teck Pang, 41; Wong Teck Chi, 39; and Johnny Lau Jung Hien, 21 – all from Sarawak 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, in Manila, also did not release any statement on this.
But lawyer Laisa Alamia, ARMM executive secretary, has confirmed Sabah’s closure of its eastern boundaries to cross-border trade with southern Philippines. She said this has affected the economic activities in Tawi-Tawi, where traders buy their 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,” she stressed. “There are no taxes paid, they go to Sandakan in Sabah by boat and sell their goods there, and, at the same time, buy products at the lowest prices.”
Recent media reports showed the Philippine authorities have failed to stop the cross-border kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf 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, just several nautical miles from Sabah.
Just recently, two generals in the Philippine military were sacked for failing to stop the kidnap-for-ransom activities of the Abu Sayyaf. The jihadist group had in the past beheaded a Malaysian hostage in southern Philippines and killed a maritime policeman in a raid on a popular resort in Sabah.
The Jakarta Post article on April 6 also said the other measures agreed upon in the Sabah Cabinet meeting include the immediate halt of transhipment trade of petroleum and gas products in the Eastern Sabah Security Zone, which spans 10 districts from Kudat to Tawau.
Aman also imposed a maritime curfew from 7 p.m. to 5 a.m. in Sabah’s seven coastal districts – from Beluran to Tawau – ordering security forces to seize any foreign motorized boats in Sabah waters. He also told security forces to protect merchant boats sailing in high-risk areas in Sabah, particularly near the Philippine border.
“The state government takes these kidnappings very seriously,” said Aman, who also shelved a proposed ferry services – supposedly to start from May – between Kudat in Sabah and Palawan province in the Philippines. “The new measures to be taken will ensure this problem can be dealt with effectively.”
He added, “We are also studying in-depth prevention and rectification measures to deal with hijacking and kidnapping involving merchant ships in high-risk waters.”
Kuala Lumpur has in the past paid huge ransoms to the Abu Sayyaf in exchange for the safe release of Malaysian hostages and this even goes back to 2000, when jihadists kidnapped 21 mostly European and Malaysian hostages from Sipadan resort, and to last year to save the lives of its citizens. AL JACINTO