No sooner had fighting erupted in the southern Philippines than a group of about 100 armed men, dressed in fatigues, fled and crossed the maritime border into Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah on the northeast coast of Borneo island. They have since been surrounded by authorities.
Malaysians are negotiating with the men in the hope that they will leave and avoid a potentially nasty confrontation, but details remain sketchy. The Philippines said the men left from Sulu, adding that the Philippine navy and military have since beefed up security around the country’s maritime borders.
Many suspect that the men are members of the much-loathed Abu Sayyaf, though this has not been confirmed.
Islamic militants and pirates have often used Sabah as a transit lounge en route from the southern Philippines to eastern Indonesia, receiving food and shelter from the state’s burgeoning illegal Muslim population.
This illegal population numbers in the hundreds of thousands, perhaps much more, and largely hails from Mindanao and the surrounding islands where Manila has battled insurgents for decades, forcing many to flee.
As mentioned in this column earlier this week, a serious push for peace has emerged with Philippine President Begnino “Noynoy” Aquino making an unprecedented visit to the troubled south where a framework agreement has been reached with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
At the same time, reports have emerged that the like-minded Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has picked up arms against the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf, regarded by many as bandits for its history of kidnappings, murder, extortion and home-spun terrorist attacks.
Lahad Datu has long been a favorite spot in Malaysia for Abu Sayyaf militants on the move, who use the outpost to re-stock their supplies and rest before heading off to the next destination.
With their local knowledge and their taste for violence, Abu Sayyaf militants kidnapped 21 tourists from a nearby diving resort in 2000. In 1985, the group killed 11 people in a Lahad Datu bank robbery during a raid staged from the southern Philippines.
Their presence is a constant in the state. However, Sabah Tourism, which is more in-tune with tourist numbers than political realities, and the Malaysian government, which is going to the polls shortly, loath any hint of negative publicity and prefer to pretend such problems don’t exist.
The Abu Sayyaf are still holding hostages, many of them foreign, and have continued to carry out their antics on Malaysian soil – a hotbed for their activities since they rose to prominence 12 years ago under Galib Andang (a.k.a. “Commander Robot”).
Achieving a lasting peace in the southern Philippines has proved elusive and many doubt the current plan will succeed. But if peace does take hold there could also be ramifications for Malaysia. And the 100 armed men currently holed up in Sabah might not be the last to make the voyage across the Sula Sea.