Nearly a year after Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines agreed to launch joint sea patrols to stop piracy and kidnappings by Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants, Malaysian and Indonesian defense officials said trilateral operations would start this month – possibly on Tuesday.
Malaysian officials invited reporters to the Sandakan Sabah Naval Base, in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, where they are expected to launch the joint patrols on April 11. While Indonesian armed forces (TNI) officials have said a launch date has not been set, a defense official confirmed to BenarNews that five journalists would travel to Malaysia for Tuesday’s event.
“So far, Malaysia has not received any notification of a postponement. In fact, we have received a list of Indonesian reporters accompanying their defense minister,” an official with Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense, who requested anonymity, told BenarNews.
Previously, Indonesia Army spokesman Maj. Gen. Wuryanto said TNI had proposed that joint patrols begin on April 20 in Tarakan, in North Kalimantan province, because many of Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping victims at sea were Indonesians.
“We are ready, if it will still be in Sandakan (Sabah, Malaysia) or moved to Tarakan. We just wait for the decision from defense ministers,” Wuryanto told BenarNews.
Series of delays
North Kalimantan and Sabah are on Borneo island, whose northeastern corner lies off the southern Philippines, where ASG and other Islamic extremist groups are active.
The waters that separate the southern Philippines from Borneo were the site of ship hijackings in 2016 that saw dozens of Indonesian and Malaysian sailors kidnapped and held hostage by suspected ASG militants.
In 2016, ASG kidnapped 10 Malaysian and 25 Indonesian sailors at sea. On Jan. 18, three Indonesians were abducted from a Malaysian fishing boat and are held along with four other Indonesians by ASG, according to the foreign ministry. All the Malaysians have been freed.
Defense and foreign ministry officials from the three countries began talks last year about mounting joint patrols in the region to stop such acts of piracy and kidnappings by ASG which has aligned itself with the Middle East-based extremist group Islamic State (IS).
In May 2016, the foreign ministers agreed to launch the patrols, followed one month later by defense ministers meeting to discuss the plan, including focusing on coordinating air-sea patrols. By November, an Indonesian spokesman said a series of obstacles had slowed efforts.
On Wednesday, Bebeb Djundjunan, an official with the Indonesian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said a temporary plan called for ships from the three countries involved in the patrols to gather in Tarakan, North Kalimantan, sail to Sandakan, Malaysia, and from there head to Bongao in the Philippines.
“The three locations are naval bases of each country which have been appointed as the command centers and are given the authority to issue notice to mariners if there is an attack,” Bebeb told BenarNews.
Elsewhere, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana told the Financial Times he hoped the long-delayed trilateral campaign would “keep the sailors safe and also prevent the movement of terrorists from one place to another.”
A Malaysian defense ministry official said details about the patrols including the ships involved and protocols had not been finalized and were expected to be announced at Tuesday’s event in Sabah.
Shafie Apdal, a member of the Malaysian parliament, whose district includes Sabah, supports the joint patrols.
“[I] welcome such arrangements as long as it helps to curb criminal activities, be it terrorism, kidnapping, smuggling or human trafficking. Semporna in particular, on Sabah’s east coast, is a hotbed for such illegal activities,” he told BenarNews.
“We need to tighten our security, and the joint patrols would be a welcome relief. We also need to protect our fishermen who go out to fish within Malaysia borders but have become the target of these unlawful groups.”
In Jakarta, terrorism expert Sidney Jones, who directs the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), a local think-tank, told BenarNews that patrols were just part of an effort to stop ASG.
“Patrols themselves are not enough. ASG is a complex organization with as many as 13 factions, most of them tightly interwoven with local government and security structures. Patrols may help reduce incidents of piracy, but they won’t by themselves neutralize ASG,” Jones said.
Fadzil Aziz in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.