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Sabah’s piracy problem

Publication Date : 19-02-2014


The Malaysian government’s "no holds barred" decision to set up the Eastern Sabah Security Command is one of the best developments in our fight against cross-border criminals.

Like many Malaysians, I was shocked and surprised by the news about the Sulu intrusion at the coastal village of Kg Tanduo in Lahad Datu last year.

I was in disbelief over how this group of gunmen could have come onto our shores undetected. I received many calls from my former colleagues in the police force asking me how this incident ocurred.

Of course, I am not in a position to explain or point fingers but for all of us, it was a question of what happened to our coastal defence.

The bigger surprise was these gunmen had come to claim their so-called ancestral rights, that is, the Sabah claim. It seemed to me to be a new ball game in the security of our east coast waters.

Having served as Sabah marine police commander, it was quite normal for me to react and raise many questions. However, I must take cognisance that, unlike on land, the sea around Sabah waters is quite vulnerable due to its long coastline and close proximity to “troubled” southern Philippines.

My disbelief over the Sulu intrusion was similar to what I felt hardly a year after I had taken over as Sabah marine police commander, when pirates ransacked Lahad Datu town in 1985, killing 11 people and robbing a bank.

I was in Tuaran (near Kota Kinabalu) when I heard over the police radio about the daring assault on Lahad Datu town.

I remember despite a lack of proper logistics, our two marine police boats (one running on only one of its two engines) with CID and general duty personnel aboard, pursued them and managed to kill five of them and recover some of the stolen cash. Some of the pirates escaped in the encounter at a house on a small atoll.

The pirate attack in broad daylight on Lahad Datu was my baptism to Sabah’s wild waters of the east coast and I believe that for many of our current security forces, particularly the police, the Feb 12, 2013 Sulu incursion was an experience to last a lifetime.

For many who might not know or have forgotten, there have been countless brutal pirate attacks in Sabah. These ferocious pirates have had a history of ransacking various areas and killing many innocent people and policemen in their forays.

An island in Sabah’s northern Kudat got its name Pulau Mandidarah (Bloodbath Island) after armed men from across the border butchered 15 villagers there as an act of revenge in 1960.

A similar incident occurred at an island in Semporna. I was with the then commissioner of police (Datuk Yahya Yeop) giving out cakes to our men in Lahad Datu on Hari Raya day when word came that 12 villagers were butchered also in an act of revenge by intruders from the other side.

There have been many incidents of piracy, from colonial times to modern Malaysia, that send shivers among the coastal people and even closed businesses by entrepreneurs like the Japanese-owned pearl farm (1983) and sardine factory (1962) on the islands in Semporna.

Yes, pirates were responsible for their closure as they attacked the farm and factory, killing even the Japanese pearl farm manager.

The leaders of these cross border pirates usually sat within the safety of their home borders and sent their men in to commit their crimes, from stealing pump boat engines to raiding villagers and towns.

In my time, our biggest problem was our long coastline as it could not be policed totally as we did not have enough boats. We faced a lot of operational breakdowns and were operating at 50% strength of our patrol boats.

Intelligence was key in assisting us to defend our borders and together with other security agencies, we managed to neutralise many pirate gangs active in Sabah waters in the 1980s and 1990s.

But that did not stop them from coming. New groups kept popping up and I believe the money lures them. Today, we see that they are coming to grab hostages for ransom, a trend that began with the Sipadan kidnapping in 2000.

The ferocity of these cross-border criminals remains unchanged.

The federal government’s “no holds barred’’ decision to set up the Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) to police the sea borders between northern Kudat and south east Tawau is, I believe, one of the best developments in our fight against such criminals.

Esscom integrates all our forces – police, the Armed Forces and the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency – with a single resolve to secure our borders fully, something that has never been done before.

From a security point of view, I am now more than optimistic that our coastline is very secure, more than ever. With the establishment of Esscom, the coastline and our state are safe from any form of external threats.

I am also happy to see that Esscom director-general Datuk Mohammad Mentek, a local from Semporna and the son of a former colleague in the Sabah marine police, is well suited for such a responsibility. He and Esscom deserve the support of all peace-loving Malaysians.

As I look back at the tragedy of Kg Tanduo a year after, the incursion still rings in my mind – especially the loss of lives of our security personnel, police and soldiers.

I am sad but I am proud of the valour and the sacrifices of our security personnel in defending our state and those men who died in the line of duty.

Only the memories of the heroes now live on and their sacrifices should not be in vain.

*Clement Jaikul is a policeman who rose within the ranks under the British colonial government before retiring as a senior officer with the Malaysian police. He served eight years from 1984 as Sabah marine police commander. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.


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