THE peoples and leaders of the various countries in Southeast Asia may have differing and sometimes even contradictory views when it comes to foreign policy, such as the careful positioning of this region as a whole when it comes to the jostling for dominance of various global superpowers in the region. Through the flexible Asean mechanism, we are often able to put up non-confrontational yet loud and clear messages as to our pleasure or displeasure with their actions.
When it comes to the domestic affairs of the various Southeast Asian countries, Asean typically adopts the non-interference principle, or to put it more succinctly, the each-minding-its-own-business approach. While this has served the interests of various Southeast Asian countries well, there are nowadays of course issues and problems which might have been domestic originally, but have since transcended national borders to become regional concerns which necessitate a certain degree of concerted action among regional countries.
A recent case in point is of course the Rohingya issue in Myanmar. A legacy of colonial irredentism (of people being either uprooted and transplanted or being placed in “wrong” side of national borders as a result of [often]post-colonial shuffling of [sometimes]artificial frontiers), the Rohingya issue has long simmered in the parts of Myanmar where the Rohingyas are found. The issue somewhat broke into a regional concern when, because of unrest back home, many Rohingyas have taken to sea, with boatloads of them arriving at the shores of neighboring countries, reminiscent of the waves of Vietnamese boat people in the last few decades of the last century. The recipient countries take in as many as they could accommodate, but of course they are justified in calling for the Myanmar government to work out a longer-term solution so that the Rohingyas could live in peace and safety back home. This was not an attempt to interfere with the internal affairs of Myanmar. It was a call to preserve the peace and harmony among neighboring Southeast Asian countries.
And I am not going to beat around the bush anymore. As a Sabahan and a Malaysian, not to mention a Southeast Asian, I understandably long for the harmony and prosperity that are due my home state, country and the region at large. At this point in its stage of development, Sabah is dependent on the plantation industry as a primary income source. But a supposedly emerging economic activity is none other than tourism, which caters to the livelihood of many Sabahans who work in the various hospitality services associated with it.
There are some basic conditions for tourism to prosper. The natural beauty and cultural heritage factors have to be present, and these are for all the industrial players to discover and package accordingly. Well- built and maintained infrastructure (most prominently hotels and resorts) as well as an almost innate hospitality culture (read friendliness and helpfulness) are also indispensable factors. But there is also one other very fundamental factor that would enable tourism to flourish, and that is security for the tourists.
In recent months and years, as I travel around the world, many old and new friends invariably inquired about Sabah, saying how they are considering Sabah as their next holiday destination. But as often comes the refrain, after I excitedly describe to them the many attractions of Sabah, including the fiery sunset and the marvelous underwater world. “Is it safe to go there? I heard they kidnapped tourists for ransom?” And that, at least for me, is akin to being splashed by a bucket of ice water!
Kidnappings in some parts of Sabah’s coasts did happen, although the frequency has decreased recently, I would explain to these friends with a straight face, as honestly as I could. But the conversation typically ends there, their willingness to travel to this part of the world visibly diminishing.
And of course, it is no secret that these pirate-kidnappers (who often masquerade as self-proclaimed terrorists) ply the waters between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia. They might originate from any one of these countries, but their sometimes deadly and always profitable (to them) kidnapping ventures have become more than a nuisance to all of us. And it is not only tourism, but shipping which is also affected, for shipping lines would of course hesitate to sail through a stretch of water universally deemed unsafe.
We should of course welcome the proposals for joint patrols and sharing of information among the three nations as well as some other powerful players. But proposals remain as such until they are implemented on the ground (or in this case at sea). Meanwhile, I would venture to suggest that since the level of amity among these three neighboring countries is high, with suspicion of deliberate attempts to violate each other’s territorial sovereignty seemingly low, we should realistically allow the concept of “hot pursuit” to go full speed ahead. Law enforcement or even naval vessels of one country that are in hot pursuit of suspected pirate vessels should be able to enter (with immediate but not necessarily prior notification of their neighborly counterparts) the territorial waters of another country to complete the job of stopping and searching such pirate boats. If logistics and range of such pursuits are pragmatic concerns, then the authorities of these countries should work out a formula of “relaying” the pursuit from one authority to another, sort of like the passing of a baton in a relay. Piracy and kidnapping are common and serious concerns for us all, and we must work hard together, sometimes to the extent of entering deep into each other’s waters to eradicate them.