By Ray Sherman and Nisha David
Malaysia has placed its security forces in Sabah on heightened alert following an unverified report that leaders from islands in the nearby southern Philippines were planning to invade the state, officials said, while noting the government had not found any evidence of a plot.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said his ministry was trying to verify information about the alleged plot with his counterparts in the Philippines and Indonesia.
“Any form of threat must be independently verified and taken seriously, even if they are not substantiated,” he said.
Hishammuddin was responding to a news report in the South China Morning Post about a secret meeting that allegedly took place on Dec. 1 in the Sulu Islands to hatch a plan to send about 600 men from the archipelago to invade Sabah, a state in Malaysian Borneo.
The minister added that the intelligence arm of the Eastern Sabah Security Command, or ESSCOM, was monitoring the situation and assessing indicators pointing to any threat against the state.
“I have also instructed the leaders of the three branches of the Malaysian Armed Forces, namely the army, the navy, and the air force, to ramp up their preparedness to the highest possible level, especially in East Coast Sabah,” Hishammuddin said in a statement.
The minister said he was working closely with the Philippines Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, and Indonesian Defense Minister Probowo Subianto, under the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement, to ensure security in the region where the three countries share sea borders.
“Preserving Sabah’s safety and wellbeing is the Defense Ministry’s utmost priority. Come what may, the ministry and I will ensure that the state’s safety and sovereignty are not compromised, or violated.”
In the Philippines, security officials in the Philippines declined to comment on the news report.
Filipinos from Sulu, an archipelago in the far southern Philippines, did try to take over Sabah eight years ago; the sovereignty of the state is the source of a long-standing dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines.
On Feb. 11, 2013, a group of 200-odd armed members of the so-called Royal Sulu Army entered Sabah’s Lahad Datu district, sparking a standoff with Malaysian security officials that lasted a month before officials secured the area.
The clash ended in June with casualties on both sides. Ten members of the Malaysian security forces and six civilians were killed, along with 56 Sulu gunmen, according to media reports from that time.
Malaysian Armed Forces chief Affendi Buang, earlier on Friday, urged Sabahans to not panic over the unverified information.
“To date, intelligence and operations have not shown any evidence that such a threat is looming,” he said in a statement separate from Hishammuddin’s.
“Nevertheless, the armed forces will always be vigilant and ready to face any possible threat and to protect the country’s sovereignty.”
Police Inspector-General Acryl Sani Abdullah Sani also said that his men were on high alert.
“We take the matter seriously and will take immediate steps to heighten security measures to the highest level to face any eventuality, and prevent a recurrence of incursion in Sabah,” Acryl said in a statement late Thursday night.
“Strict action would be taken against those found to be plotting such plans.”
‘The price to pay is very high’
Although the incursion plan sounded “highly improbable,” the Malaysian security forces still had to take extra precautions, said Ramli Dollah, a security analyst from Universiti Malaysia Sabah.
“Normally, issues like this only appear when elections are coming. It was almost the same in the last election,” he told BenarNews, referring to a general election scheduled for next May in the Philippines.
“If you ask me about the chances of this [attack] happening, I would say no, but it is not impossible.”
In his view, the Royal Sulu Army “should learn from what happened during the Lahad Datu incursion, where they were not actually prepared to go to war with the Malaysian government. The price to pay is very high.”
Any invasion at this time also would not draw support from the people in Sabah, including those with family or ethnic ties with the intruders, Ramli added.
“The Lahad Datu incident was a good lesson for the Tausug and Bajau, or Filipino immigrants’ community in Sabah, as they were subjected to insults, curses, arrests and deportation after the skirmish,” he said.
“I don’t think they would want the tragedy to repeat.”