One Man's Meat

Published: Saturday May 16, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday May 16, 2015 MYT 7:26:06 AM

Kidnapping on the menu

What happened in Sandakan on Thursday was the ‘out of the box’ incident that security experts had warned about.

LAST year, in one of the famous seafood restaurants on stilts about 3km along the coastline from Sandakan, the third major town in Sabah, my two colleagues and I discussed how easy it was for Filipino gunmen to kidnap the customers.

“They could just come by boat, kidnap a few tourists and flee back to the Philippines,” I said as we ate steamed garoupa in soy sauce and buttered prawns. “If we’re unlucky or lucky – depending on your perspective – it could happen now.”

“Possible,” said Muguntan Vanar. “Philippines (by water) is only about one hour from here.”

“If one of us is kidnapped and brought to Jolo (in southern Philippines), nobody would pay for us,” joked P.K. Katharason. His remark wiped the smirk off my face.

We were in Sandakan as it was the final destination for our assignment to write about the security situation on the east coast of Sabah where cross-border kidnappings are a big concern.

At 7.46pm on Thursday, less than a year after the last cross-border kidnapping in Pulau Mabul, Semporna, about 330km from Sandakan, kidnappers struck Ocean King Seafood Restaurant in Sandakan. What we predicted could happen, happened.

Four men, one armed with an automatic rifle with bullets strapped on his chest and another with a pistol, arrived by boat at the restaurant on stilts and abducted Thien Nyuk Fun, 50-year-old co-owner of the restaurant, and customer Bernard Then Ted Fen, a 39-year-old tourist from Sarawak.

The Sandakan kidnapping was the “out of the box” kidnapping that security experts had warned me about.

“We believe their next kidnapping will not be in Semporna, Kunak and Lahad Datu. They know that we have secured these places,” a security expert told me while we had teh tarik around midnight in Lahad Datu town, about four months after marine police constable Zakiah Aleip was kidnapped and Kpl Abdul Rajah Jamuan killed by Filipino gunmen in Pulau Mabul.

“What they would do is go for areas that they have not targeted such as Sandakan and Kudat.”

The Sandakan kidnapping is brazen. This is the first cross-border kidnapping that is not on an isolated island, reef or fishing farm.

It happened about 3km from Sandakan town, which some claimed is the capital of southern Philippines because it is populated by Suluks originally from Jolo island.

It is also brazen as the bustling restaurant on stilts is located on land along a coastal road.

On Twitter, WhatsApp and Face­book, many blamed Esscom (Eastern Sabah Security Command) for the latest kidnapping. For me, it is unfair to blame Esscom entirely. The security problems in Sabah are complex.

“Esscom has done what is possible in its abilities to stop kidnapping. Since the July kidnapping, Esscom has foiled at least six kidnapping attempts,” an intel source told me. “But they are facing a cunning opponent.”

Esscom, according to the source, had concentrated its assets on Semporna, Kunak and Lahad Datu as there were two possible kidnap attempts in the area.

Last week, gunmen speaking in fluent Bahasa Malaysia asked workers at a lobster farm in Pulau Bait off Semporna: “Mana taukeh? (Where is the boss?)” This week, gunmen also speaking fluent Bahasa Malaysia asked workers at a bagang (floating fish platform) on an island off Kunak the same question.

In both incidents, the taukeh were not in their premises.

At the same time, security forces were hunting for an armed gang of seven men spotted at a plantation in Kinabatangan about 100km from Sandakan earlier this month. On May 1, a 55-year-old oil palm estate owner was killed and his driver seriously injured when they were attacked and robbed by masked men at his estate in Lahad Datu.

The intel source continued: “We can’t totally blame Esscom as it was not only facing external threats (kidnappers from southern Philippines) but from within Sabah. There is the issue of illegal immigrants in the state possessing proper or fake Malaysian documents.”

(The Royal Commission of Inquiry on Sabah’s illegal immigrants revealed that non-Malaysians – who some estimate to be half a million – possessed MyKad.)

“Take the case of the two kidnapping attempts. The gunmen spoke Bahasa Malaysia fluently. They could have been living in Sabah for a long time,” he said.

“How do you differentiate a local from a foreigner when the foreigner has documents to prove that he is local? They (the Suluks from southern Philippines) can easily mingle with the locals as many of the locals (in the east coast of Sabah) are from southern Philippines.”

The intel source continued: “What is the point of the curfew when the gunmen are already inside Sabah? They move freely in broad daylight as they possess fake or genuine MyKad.”

For instance, the Muktadil brothers, who the police have said were involved in several cross-border kidnappings on the east coast of Sabah, lived in Kampung Bangau-Bangau in Semporna.

If you go to the water village, many will remember growing up with the brothers. They’ll tell you that Nilson walked like Mickey Mouse as he was bow-legged. Those working in the tourism industry would remember a Muktadil brother as a boatman who brought tourists to islands such as Sipadan.

“Why does kidnapping keep on happening in Sabah?” someone commented on Facebook. The answer is because of geography. Cross-border kidnappings happen in Sabah because the state is close to Jolo island, the cross-border kidnap capital of the Philippines.

Unless Philippines security forces wipe out the Abu Sayyaf in Jolo island, cross-border kidnapping will be on the menu in a restaurant on stilts in the east coast of Sabah.

The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

Tags / Keywords: Philip Golingai, columnist

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