A new move by Malaysia to bolster its defenses in eastern Sabah state aims to deter potential coastal threats from the nearby southern Philippines as Manila’s new government escalates operations against Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) militants, a security expert told BenarNews.
“We cannot rule out the possibility that their shore is just close to us,” Professor Zaini Othman, who directs the Strategic Security Research Center at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, said Wednesday.
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters during a weekend visit to Sabah that his ministry intended to boost security there against threats posed by the extremist group Islamic State (IS) and militant groups based in the neighboring southern Philippines, the state-run Bernama news agency reported.
The move comes after the government of newly installed Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte late last month intensified a military offensive against the ASG in Sulu Province, whose southern end lies close to Sabah’s easternmost tip.
On Sept. 2, a bomb blast killed at least 14 people in Davao City, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. A Philippine radio station, DZMM, reported that ASG, whose senior ideological leader had sworn allegiance to IS, had claimed responsibility for the bombing, according to Rappler.com.
ASG this year abducted Malaysian and Indonesian sailors from ships sailing in waters that separate Borneo from the southern Philippines. Eight Indonesians and at least four Malaysians are believed to still be in the group’s custody, after 18 sailors from Indonesia and Malaysia were released by ASG and another armed group in the southern Philippines earlier in 2016. Two more Indonesian sailors reportedly escaped.
Over the weekend, three Filipino nationals and permanent residents of Sabah were abducted from a Malaysia-registered fishing boat sailing off the state, Malaysian authorities confirmed.
Last week, Duterte and his Indonesian counterpart, Joko “Jokowi” Widodo, signed a bilateral agreement in Jakarta on strengthening maritime security in their common waters, such as through launching joint naval patrols to safeguard the Sulu Sea from future hijackings.
“We hope in the future there will be no security problems in the Sulu Sea and we will do joint patrols to ensure the safety at the sea,” Jokowi said Friday during a joint news conference at the Presidential Palace.
“I apologize, Mr. President, as sometimes the coal deliveries needed for power plants in my country have been delayed due to the hijackings,” Duterte told Jokowi, according to the Jakarta Globe.
Bolstering coastal defenses
Among the new defensive measures being taken by Malaysia, the government will deploy 20 armored vehicles and at least four helicopters equipped with Gatling guns to the Lahud Datu area, which lies within the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), Bernama quoted Hishammuddin as saying. The Malaysian military will also install radar and coastal surveillance systems at five locations on Sabah’s east coast, the defense minister said.
ESSCOM was created in the aftermath of a deadly incursion three years ago by an armed group from the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines. The group called itself the Royal Army of Sulu, and its members identified themselves as followers of a self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu.
In early 2013, Malaysian security forces put down the insurrection by around 200 fighters from Sulu. Seventy-two people, including 56 Sulu gunmen, 10 members of the Malaysian security forces and six civilians were killed in fighting spread over several weeks in Tanduo village.
ESSCOM is responsible for overseeing security from northern Kudat to south-eastern Tawau.
“The ESSCOM brigade has been stationed in Felda Sahabat ever since the Tanduo incident took place. Therefore, the announcement made by Hishamuddin is more about boosting the military strength in the said area,” security analyst Zaini told BenarNews.
‘There is no shift’
Since taking office in Manila in late June, Duterte, the former mayor of Davao City, has launched a deadly crackdown on suspected drug traffickers and has stepped up military operations aimed at crushing ASG.
Through early September, more than 3,000 people have been killed in Duterte’s war on drugs. The campaign has drawn international criticism including from the United States, a longtime close ally of the Philippines, over alleged extrajudicial killings of suspects.
This week, the Philippine president ratcheted up tensions with the U.S. by saying that American special forces, which have been stationed in Mindanao and serving as advisers to the Philippine army in the war against ASG, should leave his country.
On Tuesday, Philippine Foreign Secretary Pefecto Yasay moved to smooth tensions with the United States.
“There is no shift in so far as our policy is concerned with respect to our close friendship with the Americans,” Yasay said according to Agence France-Presse.
The deployment of five more battalions to Sulu by Duterte’s government in its offensive against Abu Sayyaf could cause a ripple effect, which could push militants to flee to Sabah from their bases in the southern Philippines, Malaysian media quoted ESSCOM chief Wan Abdul Bari Abdul Khalid as saying on Sept. 5.
He said Malaysian forces were on high alert for potential incursions by Philippine militants, according to reports. He declined, however, to comment to BenarNews about the new security initiatives in Sabah.
Ismira Lutfia Tisnadibrata in Jakarta contributed to this report.