Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines Begin Joint Maritime Patrols

Tarakan, Indonesia
ID_MY_PH_patrols1_620.jpg Elite Indonesian naval forces rappel onto a container ship near Tarakan, Indonesia in a demonstration of a counter-piracy operation, June 19, 2017.

After a year of delays, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines on Monday launched joint security patrols in waters between their three countries, spurred to action by the seizure of a city in the southern Philippines by Islamic State-linked militant groups.

Defense ministers and top military brass of all three countries were on hand to inaugurate the initiative, first proposed in May 2016 as a rash of maritime kidnappings in the Sulu Sea slowed trilateral trade and reportedly reaped millions of dollars in ransom for Mindanao-based militants such as the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG).

Deputy Defense Minister of Brunei Darussalam Abdul Aziz bin Haji Moh Tamit and Senior Minister of State for Defense and Foreign Affairs Maliki Osman of Singapore attended the launch as observers.

The martime patrols, including air and surface elements, are meant to boost security “in the face of non-traditional real threats such as piracy, kidnapping, terrorism and other transnational crimes in regional waters,” a joint statement by the three participating governments said.

“The main goal of the Trilateral Maritime Patrol is to ensure militants, including Daesh members, do not make the Sulu Sea a ‘rat trail’ to infiltrate the three nations, especially after the fighting incident in Marawi City, Philippines,” Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told BenarNews, using another name for the so-called Islamic State.

Armed groups in the southern Philippines banded together to take over large parts of the southern city of Marawi on May 23, leading Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to declare martial law across the Mindanao region. Government forces have been battling the gunmen ever since, with a death toll of some 345 people, most of them militants, according to officials.

The dead include foreign fighters from at least six countries – Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Chechnya, Saudi Arabia and Yemen – one year after Islamic State leaders urged followers who could not reach Syria to travel to the southern Philippines instead.



Military theater

As part of the initiative, each of the three nations will set up a maritime command center in locations bordering the Sulu Sea: Tarakan, North Kalimantan, in Indonesia; Tawau, Sabah, in Malaysia; and Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, Philippines.

The send-off ceremony staged at a naval base in North Kalimantan included the simulated rescue of a cargo ship suddenly swarmed by gun-toting “pirates” amid a burst of gunfire.

Within seconds, two Indonesian warships drew alongside the container ship, and two Sukhoi fighter jets swooped low over it. Malaysian and Philippine navy ships steamed onto the scene as Indonesian navy commandos rappelled to the deck from a hovering helicopter.

According to Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, the “rescue” was set in motion by a distress call from the container ship, which was being followed by surveillance aircraft.

“This is the kind of cooperation we will do against piracy,” Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told a press conference aboard Indonesian Navy Vessel Dr Suharso-990.

“One and a half years ago, we predicted ISIS would come to the southern Philippines. Why? They were losing in Syria and Iraq. They are conducting activites in Europe, for sure they will return to Southeast Asia,” he said.

Hishammuddin said the patrols are a positive step in containing growing radicalism among “a handful of community groups who don’t respect the law.”

“We’ve already made a commitment not to give them even the slightest bit of room on our soil,” he said.

Porous borders

Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said his goverment was determined to combat the ASG, which has undermined security in the region for years.

The security cooperation would help secure Sulu waters, a key trade route for the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), he said.

“This cooperation will enable us to hunt down all the hiding places of the Abu Sayyaf gang,” he said.

In Manila, Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesman Brig. Gen. Restituto Padilla told reporters, “The end objective of the trilateral border agreement is to reinforce the security in this common area.”

Abductions at sea would end “and the movement of potential armed elements, any jihadist organizations or any armed organizations, will not go through all these porous borders because of that heightened security,” he said in describing the aims of the cooperation.

For years, ASG has been kidnapping and holding hostages for ransom, and executing some of them. In February, the group released a video showing the beheading of a German hostage, Jurgen Kantner, after a deadline for a U.S. $600,000 (2.6 million ringgit) ransom passed.

Last year, ASG militants were blamed for attacks on ships in waters between Borneo island and the southern Philippines that resulted in abductions of dozens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors. Most were released.

ASG collected at least 354.1 million Philippines pesos (U.S. $7.3 million) from ransom paid for hostages in 2016, Philippines-based news website reported.


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