Kidnappings in Malaysian waters bordering Indonesia and the Philippines – largely blamed on Abu Sayyaf militants – are still happening despite joint air and sea patrols launched in 2017, a Filipino military official conceded Wednesday, saying it remains a challenge to secure the local seas because of their sheer size.
While the Trilateral Maritime Patrols (TMP) launched in 2017 have had some effect in combating the threat, the region is lawless as pirates and militants reign with impunity, said Maj. Arvin Encinas, spokesman for the Philippine military’s Western Mindanao Command.
“We have our ongoing operation right now. We cannot just do it alone – it’s coordinated with our counterparts,” Encinas told BenarNews. “It’s effective, but it’s not enough since the area we cover is too big.”
His counterparts in Indonesia and Malaysia offered similar comments.
They spoke about strengthening patrols to protect civilians, less than a week after suspected Abu Sayyaf gunmen abducted five Indonesian fishermen from a fishing boat in Malaysian waters in eastern Sabah state, close to Tawi-Tawi province in the southern Philippines.
A spokesman for the Indonesian military (TNI) said the countries were hampered by boundaries.
“The kidnappings happened in Malaysia, so we couldn’t do anything. Malaysia is responsible there,” TNI spokesman Maj. Gen. Sisriadi told BenarNews.
“We cannot go there because it is Malaysian territory. We must respect the sovereignty of each country,” said Sisriadi who goes by one name.
Indonesian Security Minister Mahfud MD said he planned to discuss maritime security concerns with Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi, adding there was a reason for why the kidnappings were still happening.
“Because Abu Sayyaf has not died,” he told reporters.
He also planned to speak to Malaysian officials about Indonesians being taken hostage in Malaysian waters.
“We have many thoughts. We managed to free three hostages and, suddenly, they took five more. Since when do we lose to pirates,” he asked.
Philippine troops on Jan. 15 rescued the last of three Indonesians who were kidnapped by Abu Sayyaf militants in September, about a month after his two compatriots were rescued. A day later, the five fishermen were taken hostage.
Hazani Ghazali, commander of Malaysia’s Eastern Sabah Security Command, which oversees the waters where the five fishermen were kidnapped, had little to say but confirmed that the joint patrols were operating under the trilateral agreement signed in 2017. The maritime patrols began in June that year and air patrols began four months later.
“So far, the Philippines Armed Forces is giving us full support and cooperation,” Hazani told BenarNews before ending the conversation.
After the air patrols were launched in October 2017, there was a long lull in maritime kidnappings off Sabah, but at least five separate incidents of abductions from boats and ships sailing in area waters have been reported since September 2018.
Along with the patrols, Philippine officials are targeting advocacy and public engagement efforts at residents who live near Abu Sayyaf militant camps.
There has been “a relentless advocacy campaign conducted on residents of remote areas about the terrorists’ threats,” Lt. Gen. Cirilito Sobejana told BenarNews.
Sobejana, the commander of the Philippine Army’s Western Mindanao Command, said he had ordered his officers to dismantle Abu Sayyaf.
“They were a bit popular before with their Robin Hood-style of sharing the bounty that they get out of the ransom being paid. They got the support of the locals,” Sobejana said of Abu Sayyaf. “Now, they don’t have any kidnap victims except the latest ones.”
As for the five fishermen captured last week, Charles Honoris, a lawmaker with Indonesia’s ruling Democratic Party of Struggle, called on the government to make every effort to free them.
“Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines have signed a trilateral agreement related to securing territorial waters in the region,” he said, adding that fishermen and others remained vulnerable because the agreement had not been fully implemented.
“The government must urge Malaysia and the Philippines to carry out security cooperation that has been agreed upon. Cooperation can also include the placement of sea marshals or armed personnel on ships that pass through vulnerable lanes,” Honoris said.
Ramli Dollah, a security analyst at the Universiti Malaysia Sabah, said kidnappings were lucrative and would go on as long as issues in the region were not resolved, especially in the nearby southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf is entrenched.
Those issues led the nations to establish the trilateral agreement, he said.
“However, such cooperation is not a guarantee in dealing with such threats,” Ramli told BenarNews.
“The situation becomes increasingly difficult as geographical factors, especially the proximity of the Philippines and Malaysia, facilitate the activity and make it difficult for the authorities to deal with the issue,” he said, adding that trilateral cooperation could reduce but not eliminate the threat.
Because of this, it is unfair to blame weaknesses in any specific country in dealing with the cross-border security threat, he said.
Deka Anwar, a researcher at the Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC) in Jakarta, said the trilateral patrols could be effective in intercepting pro-Islamic State fighters returning to Southeast Asia from the Middle East.
He does not think patrols can be as effective against kidnappers linked with Abu Sayyaf and other groups.
“It’s critical to try and understand why these kidnappings at sea started, stopped and resumed. It almost certainly had little to do with the TMP,” he told BenarNews, referring to the agreement on joint patrols.
“Anyone watching the Philippines should understand that as commanders are killed, their sons, brothers and nephews sooner or later will take their place, motivated by vengeance as much as profit,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Mark Navales in Cotabato City, Philippines, Tia Asmara in Jakarta, and Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.