KOTA KINABALU, Sept 19 — Regular abductions by Filipino gunmen here despite the formation of the Sabah Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCom) to specifically deter cross border crimes is raising fresh questions about the agency’s function.
Universiti Malaysia Sabah senior lecturer Wan Shawaluddin Wan Hassan said the continued occurrences despite the resources poured into ESSCOM meant criticism and doubts were inevitable.
“The statistics does speak for itself. Five incidents in Sabah alone (this year), not including those at the border. A lot of funding and assets has been provided to them which are not always utilised to its optimum capacity,” he said.
While not unheard of, abductions were a rarity prior to the formation of ESSCOM in 2013. In the decade before it was established, there were a total of seven kidnappings including two high-profile incidents in Sipadan and Pandanan island in 2000.
Esscom was mooted after the deadly intrusion by some 200 armed insurgents from Southern Philippines who called themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” in Tanduo, Lahad Datu.
But in the nine months after its formation to boost Sabah’s maritime security, five kidnappings took place before a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed in the waters surrounding the east coast.
The move appeared to work and led to a year without incident, but it was not long before the militants returned, seizing a restaurant manager and patron from a popular seafood restaurant along Sandakan’s coast in a daring raid during peak dinner hours.
Although Thien Nyuk Fun, the restaurant manager was eventually released, the other hostage, Bernard Then, was beheaded by the Abu Sayyaf militants when negotiations went awry.
Sabah has experienced another five kidnappings in the last six months, including five Malaysians and at least six Indonesians who are still being held captive.
Wan Shawaluddin, who recently co-wrote a paper on the issues and challenges of tackling cross border crime in Sabah, said his research showed while it appeared that ESSCom was infused with sufficient resources, not all were suited for its use.
Others also needed to be restored or refitted before they could be deployed.
“Based on my research on the ground with MMEA staff, many of the assets, like sea vessels were either old and underperforming due to several reasons. While it’s true that big allocation has been allocated to ESSCOM but it will take some time for the assets to be in service,” he said.
Putrajaya allocated a massive RM660 million for Esscom in Budget 2015, not including additional special funds for emergency boats, which were spread out largely to the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency (RM433.2 million), Malaysian Armed Forces (RM83.5 million) and Royal Malaysian Police RM78 million.
The remainder RM65.9 million was allotted to ESSCOM, of which RM17 million was for operations and RM48.9 million for development.
“The leadership of the body plays a huge role, and from what I was told, there is a lack of intel-sharing between the agencies that is a big problem when it comes to enforcement,” Wan Shawaluddin added.
Retired Special Branch Deputy Director Datuk Dr Leong Chee previously said two Special Branch units in the state and heading Esscom were “not talking” to each other, leading to criminals taking advantage of the situation. The statement was refuted by then Sabah police commissioner Datuk Jalaluddin Abdul Rahman.
Wan attributed the early success of Esscom in foiling at least 15 kidnapping attempts to quality intelligence from the ground and rapid response from the previous commander.
Datuk Abdul Rashid Harun, an experienced police officer who spent time with the VAT69 unit, was made Sabah police commissioner earlier this year. He was replaced at ESSCOM by Datuk Wan Abdul Bari Wan Abdul Khalid.
“A firm hand in this kind of security operations is crucial — it is not about meetings and procedures and bureaucracy. The new chief needs to be close to the ground to both the community and the officers,” Wan said.
Wan explained that another factor for ESSCOM’s lack of apparent success was the monumental nature of its task.
The area under the agency’s watch spans from Sandakan, through Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu, Semporna to the Tawau jetty and encompasses 1,733km of coastline and an area of 31,158 sq km with 362 islands.
The presence of the many smaller islands in Sabah’s waters, particularly in the east coast within close proximity to neighbouring countries, especially the Philippines, also compounds the problem.
“Even if the government increases the number of personnel and patrols, Sabah’s long coastlines and the presence of hundreds of islands in Malaysia-Indonesia-Philippines waters make it very difficult to patrol the Sabah maritime territorial water effectively,” he said.
To illustrate, it only takes a few minutes by boat to reach Philippine or Indonesian waters from Tanjung Labian in Lahad Datu, Tambisan in Sandakan, Pulau Mataking in Semporna or Sebatik in Tawau.
A speedboat could escape from Sabah and go into hiding in Sitangkai island in around 15 minutes, a short 5km boat ride away. Tawi-Tawi island is only 27 nautical miles from Sabah, and visible from Lahad Datu’s Tambisan.
Fallout from Duterte’s war
Wan Shawaluddin said that Sabah’s proximity to Philippines meant that threats will continue to hound Sabah as long as the political unrest continues and the current war from Manila on the Abu Sayyaf will only exacerbate the situation in the near future.
Despite many hoping that President Rodrigo Duterte’s battle against the Muslim insurgents will eliminate the problem, Wan said the situation will likely get worse before it gets better.
“His (Duterte’s) actions will make him a target and anger the militants. They will retaliate and we will likely see a war before any stability. It’s only a matter of time before they start to flee here,” he said.
“There is no reason to think the militants won’t seek refuge in Sabah, despite knowing Esscom is ready for them, they will still try. Many have relatives and friends here and they can hide easily. To them, Duterte’s rage is more dangerous than Esscom. They will obviously choose to flee here rather than face Duterte’s army,” he said.
“It’s unfortunate because much of this problem didn’t start with us. We unfortunately have to bear the burden of the instability and volatility in Southern Philippines,” he said.
The academic likened the scenario to the United States and Mexico border, with the latter bringing the crime index up from its drugs-related activities.
“The US are able to utilise the most sophisticated technology but their troubles are still ongoing. What can we expect here?,” he said.
Wan also noted that the kidnap-for-ransom groups had strong intelligence and were quick to study the security forces’s strategy and operations to their advantage.
“They manage to take note of any weaknesses in Esscom’s operations to be utilised fully to their advantage. Then the other question becomes whether or not there is a leak in ESSCOM. It won’t be that surprising as there are moles in almost any intelligence network,” he said.
ESSCOM: Help us help you
As the target shifts from resort tourists to fishermen at sea, Esscom commander Wan Abdul recently urged boat operators to install the Automated Identification System (AIS) as instructed by the police to enable identification of the vessels and make it easier to monitor their movement.
“A fisherman’s boat is like their home. To ensure you’re safe, you would put in a CCTV or grilles, lock your doors, and turn on the lights. You would let your neighbours know if you weren’t around and leave your phone number,” he said, adding that the boat involved in the latest kidnapping had taken no safety measures at all.
“This boat didn’t have AIS, or any communication tools. No safety measures were taken, all directives were ignored. The initiative is with the criminals,” he said.
Responding to the Malay Mail Online’s questions on challenges faced by Esscom, Wan Bari said that it was up to the community and public to help prevent such incidences.
The latest abduction of three fishermen was blamed on the absence of the AIS distress beacon on the trawler, which police said could have given ESSCOM enough time to intercept the abductors.
“The deterrence factor is with the community or the public who create the opportunity. The response is with the security forces, but the blame always falls on us,” he said.
Wan Shawaluddin also agreed that it was imperative that the public are on board with the authorities, but said the onus was with the latter to “win the hearts of the people”.
“We definitely need one agency whose function is to coordinate the east coast. And you cannot underestimate the people to help overcome this deep-rooted problem. They need to win the people over into cooperating with them and help them along the process.
“The added benefit of involving the people is that it also makes them less critical because now they are part of the solution,” said Wan.