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Politicisation of police-military ops in Lahad Datu

Currently, there are ongoing military operations in the Lahad Datu region to remove the threat of terrorists who intruded into our territory from the nearby Philippines islands and criminally committed hideous acts of barbarism against our police forces. They pose an undeniable security threat to our nation and people.

Regrettably, at a time when Malaysians need to pull themselves together to face this threat, where Lim Kit Siang has been outstandingly, one of the few national leaders who commendably visualises and unreservedly supports this national imperative, we cannot help but notice the increasing politicisation of our police and military operations against the foreign terrorists.

It would appear that our national leaders from both sides of politics - other than Lim Kit Siang and a few other level-headed personalities - lack the experience of higher and more altruistic demands on them for our nation at this juncture in time.

Perhaps we could blame their deficiency in part on the considerable time lapse since the end of the Second Malaysian Emergency when the federal government signed the Peace Accord with the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in Haadyai in1989, followed by a similar peace agreement a year later between the Sarawak state government and the North Kalimantan Communist Party (NKCP).

They don’t appear to appreciate the need for bipartisanship and national cohesiveness against threats to national security, especially those from external sources. And neither have they shown they understood that police-military operations should be left to the professionals to conduct without political interference or partisan politicising.

Without being insensitive to the sacrifices of our eight slain policemen and one soldier during the police-military conduct of operations in the Lahad Datu region, and indeed their bereaving families, the illegal incursion by around 300 to even 400 Filipino terrorists or mercenaries represents in reality only a minor illegal incursion with limited conflict. Yet the politicisation of the operations is unacceptably disproportionate, disgraceful and unpalatably continuous.

On the side of the Barisan Nasional-led government, we have two ministers (of home affairs and defence) who saw fit to turun padang unnecessarily and intrusively during the conduct of the operations when the matter should have been left to the respective operational commander to run without the political masters breathing down their shoulders.

It’s what the military would term as ‘swanning around’ (trying to impress people) which is similar to the American ‘photo-ops’ (for favourable publicity).

In fact, we don’t even need the inspector-general of police (IGP) or the Armed Forces chief or the army chief at the frontline. This was how operations against the CPM were conducted in the peninsula and the Rajang Security Command (Rascom) area during the Malaysian Second Emergency period. Mind you, I don’t blame the IGP or the panglima angkatan tentera when their political masters were down there, thus requiring their presence as well.

The person in charge of the theatre (or region) of operations should be the principal personality present in the region, namely the panglima wilayah (general officer commanding or GOC) or if we want to be more specific about operations in the Lahad Datu region, the panglima mandala (theatre of operations commander).

We understand the responsibility for ensuring security in the region has just been assigned and named as the East Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM). Thus, all military or police-military operations must be managed by the panglima ESSCOM and not by ministers swanning around or their handmaids, the chiefs of the armed forces, army, navy, air force or the IGP.

Theatre commander has enough on his hands

Ministers including the prime minister, and in a mature democracy, the opposition leader as well, may certainly visit the troops at the sharp end for purposes of moral and welfare, but only after some time has elapsed in a lengthy operations but definitely not during the initial stages. The theatre commander would have enough on his hands, and knowing our Malaysian ‘values’, without seeing to the required pampering of ministers or the defence chief or IGP.

Then there was another form of sinister politicising of the Lahad Datu incident. I raised this previously in a letter to Malaysiakini about the sad political exploitation by Kadir Jasin of ethnicity in the Lahad Datu tragedy. That was a very sad and cheap tactic.

But the politicisation continues where we now have a Sabah politician, Jeffery Kitingan, suggesting that Malaysia invites the United Nations (UN) to step in on what is a case of banditry or at best, criminal mercenaries in a part of Sabah.

Which nation in the world did, does or will invite the UN to intervene on small domestic issues of criminality? Surely it must be the sovereign nation of Malaysia which possesses sole right and authority to deal with the criminals.

Whatever reason Kitingan might have for making such an absurb proposal, I cannot but help wonder about a possible partisan political angle to it.

On the part of the federal opposition, specifically Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), its vice-president, Tian Chua, is now under police investigation on what he had allegedly commented about the Lahad Datu incident.

If true, then what he had allegedly said was most regrettable and a most cynical exploitation of a terrorist act for partisan political purposes. However, we have to assume all Malaysians are innocent until proven guilty, and I trust the police investigations will clear him.

Then, again from PKR, we hear its new member, Lt-Gen (Rtd) Abdul Ghafir Abdul Hamid, criticising the failure of military intelligence and the lamentable state of equipment in the Malaysian military. The general should know that there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens. Is ‘now’ the best time to criticise the military for its intelligence and equipment failures?

Apart from an appalling lack of appreciation for the imperatives of national security and bipartisanship, other than that commendably demonstrated by Lim Kit Siang, I believe the politicisation of the police-military operations in the Lahad Datu or ESSCOM region has been accentuated by:

  • A deeply divisive and divided body politics since March 2008, which might possibly have permeated every social fabric in Malaysia,
  • The intense and quite unprecedented feral political campaigning for Malaysia’s 13th general elections,
  • The personalities of the two main political antagonists and their acrimonious relationship towards each other,
  • The increasing dissatisfaction of East Malaysians, particularly Sabahans, with Malaysia’s federal politics and the concurrent increasing ambition of East Malaysian politicians.
Scholar’s comments on military strategy

A week ago, we even had a scholar, Dr Kua Kia Soong, a director of Suaram, commenting adversely on military strategy and hardware used in the Lahad Datu operations.

At the launch of Malaysian civil society’s 20-point demands for the 13th general election at the Kuala Lumpur Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall, Dr Kua questioned the strategy used by the armed forces in Lahad Datu, when he stated:

“What role did the Scorpene submarines play in the Lahad Datu crisis?”, and

“Is it wise to use jet fighters like the Hornets against a motley group of 250 Sulu men in a 4km radius? Shouldn't we be using helicopters such as the Apache instead?”

While I respect Dr Kua, and indeed some of his points raised at the Malaysian civil society forum have been reasonable, I view his queries on the use of Scorpene as highly politicised, and type of military strike aircraft in the Lahad Datu crisis, where his stated preference was for Apache attack heli-gunship instead of F/A-18 Hornets, at best as plain silly.

In fact I would even consider his questioning the use of fast strike jets as politicising the military operations.

For a start, does the Royal Malaysian Air Force (TUDM) or the Malaysian army possess Apache helicopter gunships? I know the Republic of Singapore Air Force (RSAF) does, so was Dr Kua suggesting that we should have borrowed some from the RSAF to employ in Lahad Datu?

Many years ago the TUDM did possess (not sure now) some Alouette helicopters which were armed with 20-mm calibre cannons, but these were not helicopter gunships per se like the American Apache and Cobra or their European equivalents. The armed Alouettes were meant more for sanitising (clearing) helipads of bobby traps and mines in operations during the Emergency to ensure soldiers landed there did not walk onto those devices.

The F/A-18s and BAE Hawks were the best possible choices for fast ground-strikes to enhance the element of surprise in the dawn attack, required munition load and of course safety for the pilots. And the 4 km square zone is more than big enough for such strikes to be conducted in safety for friendly forces on the ground.

No doubt the Scorpene submarines were purchased under questionable process and thus lend themselves to highly politicised views, but militarily, submarines would not be the best vessel to employ to interdict alien infiltration or exfiltration from or to the nearby Filipino islands.

A submarine is meant for covert warfare or warfare by stealth, which is using cover and stealth to monitor, approach, trail and/or attack enemy ships or even to insert and extract commandos into and from enemy territory.

Stealth tactic not required

The denial of Filipino entries into Malaysian waters doesn’t require such a sophisticated approach or stealth tactic. In fact, the Royal Malaysian Navy (RMN) or Malaysian naval police, apart from detecting and stopping boats carrying armed intruders from the Philippines southern islands, should actually show their flags or presence openly (and threateningly) to deter the terrorist from entering Malaysian waters.

A combination of maritime air and surface ship patrols would be best.

But the coast of Eastern Sabah is not exactly Penang’s Batu Ferringhi beach. It’s a fairly extensive stretch for surveillance and interdiction, and coupled with the proximity of numerous Filipino southern islands and possibly the limited RMN resources, the task would be difficult though not impossible.

A possible solution in terms of efficient yet effective use of resources and cost would be to employ a number of drones equipped with electronic sensors and visual camera to patrol the coast to present real-time coastal and sea situations to ESSCOM.

Dr Kua should stick to his scholarly and political work, which we all admire, and leave military operations to the professionals.

But I worry that there have been disappointing and highly politicised urge of some to just condemn everything and anything the Malaysian military and police have done or will be doing in Lahad Datu, just for the purpose of vicariously getting at their political foes. This is not healthy for our nation, rakyat and certainly the morale of our boys and lassies at the sharp end.

In a democracy, constructive criticisms or wash-ups are part and parcel of our commitment to improved operations but as mentioned, there is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.