Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced Thursday that he would host a trilateral meeting with his Indonesian and Philippine counterparts in Kuala Lumpur on July 21, where they will discuss plans to jointly patrol sea corridors separating the three nations.
It is scheduled to take place as Indonesia grapples with two hostage crises involving 10 Indonesian sailors who were abducted off tugboats by southern Philippine-based Abu Sayyaf militants, officials say.
Earlier this week, the chief of Indonesia’s armed forces, Gen. Gatot Nurmantyo, had announced that a trilateral meeting of defense ministers would take place in Kuala Lumpur on July 12.
The three countries have yet to implement joint patrols in the Sulu and Celebes seas, since their foreign ministers first met in Jakarta on May 5 and agreed to a plan to curb hijackings in the waters that separate the southern Philippines from Borneo island. The agreement called for establishing three-way hotlines and coordinating maritime patrols.
Last month, the defense ministers held a tri-lateral meeting in Manila, where they agreed to pursue coordinated air-and-sea surveillance, in a joint effort to halt kidnappings by the Abu Sayyaf Group along their common maritime boundaries.
They decided to model their Sulu Seas Patrol Initiative (SSPI) on the Malacca Straits Patrol, a system of air-and-sea operations coordinated by Indonesia and Malaysia in the Andaman Sea.
Hishammuddin said that a Malaysian multi-agency delegation, led by the National Security Council, was in Jakarta and working on a “Framework on Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement between Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines,” with counterparts from the other two countries.
The framework, which was expected to be signed at the end of this working group meeting in Jakarta, was “paving the way for next week where the defense ministers will discuss and deliberate specifically the operationalization of the SSPI which will be undertaken by our respective armed forces,” Hishammuddin said.
While the plans have not been implemented, Indonesian officials have expressed an urgency to begin joint sea patrols with their neighbors.
“We will coordinate in order to make it really safe. We will divide the routes that we can enter or, for example, if we chase the perpetrator into the Philippines territory, we can enter the area as long as we report to them first,” Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday.
Unions protest abductions
The defense ministers’ announcements occurred on the same day that Indonesian trade union members reacted to the recent kidnappings of Indonesian sailors by launching a protest, in which they claimed that their government and the Philippines had failed to protect seamen sailing between the two countries.
“The governments of the Philippines and Indonesia are negligent and did not learn from previous mistakes. They should have responded it quickly,” Said Iqbal, president of the Confederation of Indonesian Workers Union (KSPI), told journalists during the protest in front of the Philippine Embassy in Jakarta.
The protest featured hundreds of Indonesian workers who are members of KSPI and the Rumah Rakyat Indonesia (RRI), another trade union.
They urged both governments to work toward the immediate release of 10 Indonesian sailors who are held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in the southern Philippines.
Three sailors were abducted by ASG on July 9 off the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah and seven members of an Indonesian tugboat crew were abducted in the waters off Tawi Tawi in the southern Philippines on June 20.
“We demand the Philippines to play an active role toward the effort to free [the Indonesian hostages] including by working together with the Indonesian government and its military,” said KSPI Secretary-General, Muhammad Husni, who warned that more hostages could be taken if the governments did not act quickly.
Tia Asmara in Jakarta and Hata Wahari in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.