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We must learn from the lessons of Lahad Datu

In the early 1990s, a small group of Filipino men heavily armed with M16s guns and grenade launchers appeared suddenly in Semporna town.

Their target? None other than the small Semporna police station, the nearby equally small marine base and the police barracks.

These marauders operated with military precision. How else do you explain their capability in trapping our security personnel in their own base?

They had positioned themselves strategically and rendered our men immobile.

They took control of Semporna for about 20 minutes from the time they cornered the police and moved to the town centre less than 800 metres away firing randomly into the air.

Fortunately, there were no casualties and a family of three who were taken hostage at a nearby kampung were unharmed. The marauders managed to escape the police cordon shortly before midnight that same day.

And it was fortunate too that the (pineapple-type) grenade hurled at police in the barracks failed to explode and was later detonated by bomb squad.

I remember arriving in Semporna to report for a local paper. It was a ghost town that greeted me. Shops were closed, hardly anyone around saved for a few private vehicles moving at high speed. Strewn on the ground were spent bullet casings.

The marauders did not come to rob and there was never an official explanation made by the authorities why the raid took place.

But local residents said it was in retaliation to the mass deportation of Filipino illegal immigrants in Semporna then. The armed men wanted to send a message.

History dictates that the coastal town of Semporna and its scattered islands are prone to attacks from armed foreign intruders.

From the time of the British colonial rule which had to deal with attacks from ‘mundu' (pirates) and up till now, Semporna sure has colourful albeit horrifying tales of armed invaders.

So, how is that we never learnt from history? Could we have prevented the tragic loss of six good men in Semporna over a two day period not to mention the two shot dead by a group of self-proclaimed army of the defunct Sulu Sultanate in Lahad Datu?

I thought the 1990s incident when the police in Semporna were pinned down by a group of armed raiders, would jolt our government, the military, armed forces, marine and police, into enforcing better security alert over possible similar attacks in future.

Questions unanswered

Are we being complacent or ignorant?

Who were those marauders who were armed to the teeth? How was that they could easily infiltrate our borders and smuggled firearms into Sabah undetected again and again?

Are they connected to the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who settle in Sabah amidst the conservatively estimated 800,000 Filipinos immigrants?

Is it any wonder how they appeared suddenly on our land?

Once I chance upon an appeal case in the High Court of Kota Kinabalu involving a convicted MNLF leader.

His presence would have gone unnoticed if not for the heavy presence of armed security personnel around the court building and escorting him.

He had requested the judge, who turned him down, to clear the court of reporters.

He made chilling revelations on how easy it was for him to land on one of the islands off Sandakan. He had fled from the Philippines security following arms clashes in Mindanao.

He was armed when he came and alleged police knew about him. He made it sound like he was initially welcomed but felt betrayed when he was arrested and sentenced to imprisonment for firearms possession.

He had appealed to serve his jail term in Sabah prison instead of in Peninsular Malaysia but was rejected.

And how many more people like him are already in Sabah?

And just how did we end up in this sorry situation? The massive illegal immigration from Indonesia especially from Southern Philippines is widely attributed to the lawlessness in Sabah.

Local residents started to feel unsafe in the early 1980s. That's the time when iron grills installed on windows and doors started to appear at many homes due to an increase in robbery and housebreaking cases.

That's the time when local leaders voiced concern over the sudden influx of illegal immigrants.

Then opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah which helmed the Sabah government (1985-1994) repeatedly brought the problem including Project IC, and its implications socially, economically and security-wise, in Parliament but only to be branded as being anti-federal.

The mainstream media had a field time playing the anti-federal issue to turn public sentiments against PBS.

How convenient for Dr M

The then Dr Mahathir Mohamad-led BN government even blamed the PBS for the problems instead of addressing them. How convenient!

But the truth finally surfaced in the on-going Royal Commission of Inquiry hearing with the shocking revelations of former ISA detainee Siti Aminah Mahmud of a conspiracy to topple the PBS government and to minimise the voting power of local Sabahans through Project IC.

This was a project that involved the issuance of ICs to illegal Muslim immigrants from the Philippines and Indonesia in exchange for votes and was long suspected by Sabahans as the cause for the state's population increasing significantly in the late 1980s.

And Mahathir, among the leaders implicated in the project, is unrepentant.

Justifying the action was made in the interests of Muslim brotherhood and that the ICs were issued lawfully.

Tell that to the families of our eight dead heroes. Does Muslim brotherhood means we have to compromise the nation's security?

Let us not forget the1986 riots in Sabah which occurred in response to the results of the 1985 state election whereby the newly formed PBS ousted (the now defunct) Parti Berjaya (a BN component then) from the helm of government.

The rioters took to the streets to bring down the PBS' Joseph Kitingan from the chief minister's post.

It was suspected that the riots were triggered by the losing parties including BN to bring forth a proclamation of emergency in order to justify a takeover by the federal government similar to those which happened in 1966 in Sarawak and 1977 in Kelantan.

Those rioters were mostly paid illegal immigrants used by power crazy leaders to satisfy their political agenda.

There was a time when Sabah saw a light at the end of the tunnel when MNLF founder Nur Misuari was appointed governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (1996-2002).

Shortly after his appointment in 1996, the BN government in Sabah led by then Chief Minister Yong Teck Lee, some state Umno leaders along with a large trade delegation (including journalists) made a bee line to Davao and several ARMM cities to establish trade ties in line with the Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and Philippine East Asia Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) agreement.

Sabah had hoped that with Misuari's appointment and the BIMP-EAGA, the Southern Philippines would finally enjoy peace, stability and rebuild its economy battered by decades of armed confrontation between MNLF and their government.

And that the Filipino immigrants who fled to Sabah to avoid the conflict would return home.

Davao and the ARMM are beautiful regions unspoiled by development.

They have huge potential in tourism, copra and cottage industries.

A grand welcome?

Misuari had accorded, amidst tight security, our delegation a grand welcome complete with schoolchildren lining the streets when we arrived at the ARMM provincial capital, Cotabato.

That welcome was reciprocated by the Sabah government when he visited the state months later.

At a state banquet, Misuari had appealed the government not to deport his people immediately  as it would cause massive problems to his region.

Whatever hope Sabah had on Misuari's appointment and the BIMP-EAGA was dashed when he fell out with the Philippines government five years later.

And over time, the illegal immigrant problem in Sabah has become too big to handle.

Just recently, a MNLF veteran was reported as saying in the Philippines that battle-hardened guerrillas MNLF had sailed from the Philippines to reinforce followers of the Sulu sultan who are battling our forces in Lahad Datu.

Muhajab Hashim, chairperson of the MNLF's Islamic Command Council said although MNLF leaders had not officially instructed their men to sail to Malaysia, they fully supported the sultan's efforts to reclaim Sabah.

What about Misuari who warned Prime Minister Najib Razak that fighting the Sulu gunmen "would be tantamount to war"?

The Philippines Inquirer quoted him saying that he was willing to send his grandnephew who lived in Malaysia and was a relative of Najib, to speak with the prime minister on a possible peaceful end to the standoff.

Peaceful end? Coming from a man who has been a rebel most of his life and who blew the only chance he had to rebuild his region and bring peace, stability and economic prosperity for his people?

Only the most ignorant of leaders would want to have anything to do with him. Unless of course, you are family.

Only in Sabah...

How do we resolve such problems unique to Sabah?

Problems partly attributed by our own leaders bent to remain in power even if it means putting in jeopardy the nation's security and violating the rights of Malaysians?

We know the difficulties faced by our security forces to patrol the long and porous sea border with the Philippines.

All the more reason why the government must revamp border security and immigration policies for Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of Filipinos (and Indonesians) have headed in recent decades - many of them illegally - to seek work and stability, resulting in social, economic and security headaches for Sabah.

The government must take drastic steps to revoke all illegally issued ICs including those under Project IC.

If the present government lacks the political will to do so then for the sake of our future generations Malaysians should stand united to vote for a new government who will.

As a daughter of a policeman, I share the feelings and emotions of our security personnel seeing their fallen comrades and my deepest condolences to the families of these fallen heroes.

May they not have died in vain.