During a media briefing session on 10 August 2008, the forward base senior military officer Commander Hanafi, who was the Markas Angkatan Tugas Bersama 2 (MATB 2) Chief of Staff, told the media that there were six external security threats scattered offshore Sabah, namely Abu Sayyaf, Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Moro National Liberation Front, Misuari Breakaway Group, ransom-seeking criminal groups and Bangsa Sulu Royal Army (BSRA).
I knew of the mentioned external threats except for the BSRA. My instinct told me it must be a new threat. After the Commander completed his briefing, I posted a question to the Commander of MATB 2, Brig Gen Datuk Sheikh Mokhsin Sheikh Hassan.
He answered that the descendants of Sulu Sultan were recruiting Sabah’s Sulu people into the BSRA and it was depicted as a security threat to Malaysia.
When asked why no action had been taken, he said that the armed forces hadn’t taken any action against them because they were just a small group of people, adding that PDRM was monitoring their activities.
“For the time being, they were just ‘touring’ in Sabah, not yet posing any substantial security threats.”
I wasn’t satisfied with his answer. How could the authority not take any action when they know that foreigners were raising army in our territory?
Najib arrived on the following day, and I managed to get comment from him at a press conference.
He commented and confirmed that “the authority is investigating the possibility of the descendants of Sulu Sultan inciting Sabah’s Sulu people to join BSRA”, but refused to give further details.
At the time, I had predicted that the BSRA would be a time bomb for Sabah in which its repercussion might not be small at all.
Finally, the event took place in February 2013 when more than 100 armed self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan’s descendants landed on Lahad Datu.
Although the Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein keeps assuring us that the Sulu militants are just descendants of Sulu Sultan, the facts tell us more than that.
Numerous academic studies have suggested that these descendants are involved heavily in the armed struggle against the Philippines government in Mindanao, and even the Malaysian government has being accused of as being one of their supporters.
Malaysia had had been involved in the southern Philippines’ Moro rebellion since decades ago. A scholar, Lino Miani, wrote in his paper that in the 1960s Malaysia, fearing a new confrontation between the country and the Philippines, began training the Moros and encouraged them to go back to the southern Philippines.
This was a covert program that started in 1969 which was directed by the late Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. According to Mr. Miani, 90 Moros received weapons and guerilla warfare training in Pangkor, Perak. And this was the first of the 16 similar classes at the same place, while dozens more training took place in Sabah.
The most famous person that came out of this program was Nur Misuari, who was a member of the first training class in Pangkor, who became the founder of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Misuari, an ethnic Tausug from Sulu, led the MNLF in fighting against the Philippines government bravely.
Moreover, Sabah’s first governor, Tun Datu Mustapha Datu Harun, who was also an ethnic Tausug from Sulu, was suspected of arranging these military courses and smuggling weaponry to the Moros.
“On Tun Mustapha’s watch, Moro struggling operations achieved an unprecedented scale,” says Miani.
Before clearing allegations of others on their behalf, perhaps Hishammuddin should firstly explain about Malaysia’s involvement in the said operations.
Analysing the Home Minister’s comments that no hostage have been taken by the militants, I assume that they are under siege for the time being.
Questions arise: If water, food and power supply have being cut off, how could the militants survive for that long? If the militants can hold out for almost two weeks, where is their supply coming from? Shouldn’t their disarmament and surrender be the only negotiation terms and conditions? Which national laws permit the descendants to land in Malaysia with arms?
Coincidentally, with the shocking revelations coming out from the hearings during the on-going Royal Commission of Inquiry on Illegal Immigrants in Sabah, do these descendants also possibly possess blue identity cards, which enables them to go in and out Sabah easily?
Can Hishammuddin confirm that they are not Malaysian citizens?
Hishammuddin said the authority is trying to solve this standoff peacefully because avoiding bloodshed is always the first priority of the government. But, did the government treat Bersih rallies’ participants fairly?
With regards to the question of which authority should be charged to handle this standoff, my viewpoint is it should be the Police force even though those militants are from outside.
If the militants were trying to intrude into Malaysia and were detected by our naval or maritime patrol boats while at sea, then it would be the navy or maritime’s task to handle it.
However, once they touched down on Malaysian soil and entered into inhabited areas, the responsibility falls on the police force while the OCPD is the highest field commanding officer.
The involvement of the military depends very much on the intensity of the potential conflict that may arise from the incident. If the standoff breaks out into a high intensity armed conflict, then the Armed Forces need to take over.
If Najib had taken the necessary steps five years ago, the story would have been different today. Therefore, Najib should bear the full responsibility for the current stand-off of not taking any action in earlier stage.
*Lam Choong Wah was a former military news reporter
Lino Miani, Green Berets, “Jihadis and Globalised Gun Runners: Trafficking and Counter-trafficking in the Sulu Arms Market”, The Seas Divide: Geopolitics and Maritime Issue in Southeast Asia, Series 5, 2008.