Malaysia sent hundreds of soldiers to a Borneo state on Monday to help neutralise armed Filipino intruders who have killed eight police officers in the country’s bloodiest security emergency in years.
Nineteen Filipino gunmen have also been slain since Friday in skirmishes that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country, which borders insurgency-plagued southern provinces in the Philippines and Thailand.
The main group of intruders comprises nearly 200 members of a Philippine Muslim clan, some bearing rifles, who slipped past naval patrols last month, landed at a remote Malaysian coastal village in eastern Sabah state’s Lahad Datu district and insisted the territory was theirs.
Public attention focused on Monday on how to minimise casualties while apprehending the trespassers, who are surrounded by security forces as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to have encroached on two other districts within 300 kilometres of Lahad Datu.
Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia were being deployed to Sabah and would help police bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state’s eastern seaboard, Sabah police chief Hamza Taib said.
“The situation is under control now,” Hamza said. “There will be cooperation” between the military and the police.
He declined to elaborate on specific strategies or on a call by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for lethal action.
“There is no way out other than launching a counter-attack to eliminate” the intruders, Malaysia’s national news agency Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying on Sunday. “Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way round.”
Malaysia’s current leader, Prime Minister Najib Razak, declared over the weekend that security forces were authorised to “take any action deemed necessary.”
Some activists say the crisis illustrates an urgent need to review border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos have headed in recent decades – many of them illegally – to seek work and stability.
Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally also crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified patrols, but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.
Some in Muslim-majority Malaysia advocated patience in handling the Lahad Datu intruders who arrived February 9. But the deaths of the Malaysian police officers, including six who were ambushed while inspecting a waterfront village in a separate Sabah district on Saturday, have triggered widespread alarm over the possibility of more such intrusions and demands for a swift resolution.
The Filipinos who landed in Lahad Datu, a short boat ride from the southern Philippines, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, saying ownership documents from the late 1800s prove the territory is theirs. The group is led by a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu, while the identities of other suspected Filipino intruders whose presence became known in two more Sabah districts over the weekend are unclear.
Edwin Lacierda, spokesman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, reiterated calls in Manila for the followers of the Kiram clan to surrender and return home, adding that the Philippine government would then look into their property claim to Sabah.
“We continue to ask them that life is a better option than death,” Lacierda told ABS-CBN TV. “These casualties, the wounded, the fatalities, are all the product of what we have been trying to avoid, the bloodshed.”
The Philippine government is continuing to exert pressure on the clan to peacefully end the standoff and is also concerned about the safety of 800,000 Filipinos living and working in Sabah, Lacierda added.
The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
It also could jeopardise public confidence in Malaysia’s long-ruling National Front coalition, which is gearing up for general elections that must be held by the end of June. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance that hopes to end more than five decades of federal rule by the National Front.