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Saturday August 27, 2005

Guns, grit & guts


Counter-Terrorist Operations. Taking down armed robbers. Helicopter strikes. Protecting the Prime Minister. All in a day’s work for our police strike force, the UTK or Unit Tindakan Khas, Malaysia’s equivalent of the crack American SWAT Team. StarWeekend has a privileged peek into the action. 

Sharp and serene. A sniper surveys his realm from a skyscraper rooftop in downtown Kuala Lumpur as the VIP motorcade grinds to a halt far below.  

Furious and fiery. A team intercepts heavily armed bank robbers at a highway toll plaza after a high-speed car chase. After an intense gunfight, the targets go down.  

Calm and collected. A plains-clothes bodyguard scans the crowd for signs of trouble as the Prime Minister shakes hands with everyone.  

He sees you, but you can’t see him.
Don’t mess with them. These men in black are our hardest-hitting men in blue, a top-notch squad of police storm troopers known as UTK or Unit Tindakan Khas (Special Action Unit), our version of the American SWAT (Special Weapons And Tactics) Team.  

Recently, they granted The Star a very rare peek into their training methods. Staccato commando-like English terms – “Close Quarter Battle”, “Strike Force”, “Stack Formation!” – peppered the instructions in Malay as the teams went through their paces: ascending special truck-mounted ladders or abseiling down from rooftops to make an assault, sliding down ropes from helicopters , subduing assassins and counter-attacking amidst burning wreckage.  

And those were just the basics. Stunt driving with spinning and skidding cars to evacuate VIP’s? Piece of cake. Combat diving to rescue ships hijacked by Indonesian pirates? Been there, done that.  

Their sharp, black uniforms are adorned with bullet magazines, large-calibre pump gun ammo (to break open doors), Rambo knives, spare pistols, torchlights, gas masks, walkie-talkies . . . You know, the works.  

At his office in Bukit Aman, Kuala Lumpur, the 43-year-old Commander (who insists on anonymity for him and all staff) cuts a strong muscular figure in his tight Hard Rock Café Buenos Aires T-shirt.  

What has been his most dangerous operation?  

“Big or small, the risk is still the same,” he replies firmly. He has been shot four times in the past five years and explosives once tore up his foot during training (they use live bullets too). He lets me glance through his CV, which reveals a long list of operations against criminals: locations, types of cases, weapons or ammo seized, live captures and, yes, body counts.  

I spot a serbuan motosikal (motorcycle assault) for a kidnapping case and I imagine a John Woo movie with all guns blazing as a heavy-duty scrambler bike goes skidding and sliding into the bad guys’ lair. But, no, he can’t reveal tactical details.  

Whereas commandos in the VAT 69 battalion are jungle warriors, UTK specialises in “urban warfare” (both units are part of the Pasukan Gerak Khas or Special Operations Forces) and its more notorious cases include Bentong Kali and the “M16 gang”. Five years ago, they took down the hard-core “Steyr gang”, so named after their high-powered assault rifles stolen from an army depot.  

The UTK poised for action.
“It was one of our biggest successes, a very long op, very tough. They had heavy weapons and were highly-trained. Some were ex-military men.”  

After their last robbery of two banks in Selangor, UTK got “the call” and following high-speed car chases, four of the gang were gunned down in Johor.  

Was the action like in the movie Heat

“More or less,” he says.  

Shroud of secrecy 

Despite their “string of successes” (as the Commander puts it), UTK is not the type to organise press conferences trumpeting captured weapons and booty. Instead, a shroud of secrecy surrounds them.  

“Even when I go back to my kampung, people don’t know that I am in UTK,” reveals the Commander. “When they see me, they say ‘Hello Inspector’ that’s all. I just tell people that I work in Bukit Aman. What I do inside, no one knows. Why do I want to jeopardise my family and myself? ”  

During training, I banter with the snipers and they tell me a thing or two about the range of their rifles and the bullets used. An officer overhears and cuts it short: “Please don’t reveal such technical details in your report.”  

As I scavenge grit and grist for the story, I zoom in on a more talkative and jocular officer. But his colleague soon stares at him before walking over for a “quiet word”. The friendly fellow becomes strangely reticent soon after. “Anything talk to Commander-lah,” he smiles.  

Uncovered faces cannot be published in our press pictures. Even car number plates must be digitally blurred. Another officer notes, “We can’t reveal our names or details on tactics. It might compromise our operations.”  

“It’s only human,” says another man. “If we kill someone, of course his relatives will want to know who we are.”  

Trigger-happy?  

It’s an open secret that hard-boiled criminals fear UTK as a crack “hit squad”.  

“What do people say about us?” asks one of the men. “Kalau UTK turun mesti ada orang mati, macam tu ke? (If UTK gets involved, people are surely going to die, is that it?)” 

The work can be traumatic.  

“The men are briefed to expect the worst,” divulges the Commander. “Some of them have to go for psychological counselling due to mental trauma after ops.”  

It has been revealed in Parliament that 635 people have been shot dead by the police from 1989 to 1999 (which works out to 1.3 persons per week). Apart from human rights groups and Opposition parties, even MIC Youth (as reported by the New Straits Times in 2003) has been worried.  

“We are not alleging that the police are trigger-happy. What we want is for everyone to be given a fair chance and not be innocently killed for being in the wrong company,” said its chief S.A. Vigneswaran, citing the case of a college student shot down in Nilai that year.  

Lawyer P. Uthayakumar was quoted as saying: “It is the same story all the time. Police notice some suspects, follow them and a shoot-out ensues . . . How come in the Al-Ma’unah incident, the police managed to arrest all suspects without even injuring a single person? I am sure the police can resort to tear-gas or shoot suspects in the leg to arrest them.”  

How many of such shootings are UTK involved in? An Amnesty International report last April goes:  

“. . . Public perceptions that police units may exist which are unofficially charged with carrying a ‘shoot to kill’ policy against ‘hardened’ criminals persisted . . . frequent media reports that, although ordinary police officers had encountered or surprised the suspects, the actual shootings were carried out by a Unit Tindakan Khas (UTK). In some instances, observers have questioned how such units came to be present at what were described as surprise encounters or ‘hot pursuits’ of suspected criminals.”  

However the Commander denies that the UTK is trigger-happy.  

“It’s not fair to say that. We have orders to arrest. We shoot only when we are shot at or when the public is in danger. Hard-core robbers who have been in and out of jail have guns and will fight back. Compared to the 1970s, criminals nowadays have much more firepower. ” 

“Sometimes we have a split second to decide. Whether the criminals have a gun or not . . . whether they are going to shoot first. Sometimes we face a hail of bullets from machine guns, pump-guns and pistols.”  

In any case, they are merely following orders on their targets. The Commander explains:  

“It’s not our job to investigate or monitor suspects. Surveillance work and intelligence gathering are done by other branches of the police. We are called in only when they are sure the target is there.” 

Which is also why it’s not in their ambit to deter potential bombings of our LRT stations like in the London bomb blasts, even though UTK is Malaysia’s primary “anti-terrorist” outfit.  

Do they have banks of computers that can monitor anything and everything like the Counter-Terrorism Unit of TV series 24? Well . . . their headquarters in Bukit Aman looks more like one of those government offices from the 1970s.  

“Even the (Royal) Commission report recognised that the police need to buy more computers,” quips the Commander.  

But when it comes to heavy muscle for anti-terrorism, it’s a GO for UTK. I ask if they can tackle a situation like the Chechen terrorist hijacking of a Moscow theatre.  

“That we can handle. We guarantee that,” he underlines. “We are one of the best urban warfare units in the world. We’ve had lots of real-life experience.”  

A first-rate force 

Every year, only five per cent of a few hundred applicants (who have to be from other branches of the police force) are chosen. Over two weeks, it’s not only their physical fitness that’s tested but also their IQ.  

“We don’t want robots. We want people who can think,” notes the Commander.  

Applicants have to run for 16km. But the ability to swim is not compulsory. 

“We can teach people skills like swimming. But we can’t teach them bravery and spirit. That’s what we’re looking for.”  

The majority of applicants are from the Police Field Force, where they’ve already been toughened up with basic jungle warfare training.  

“It’s easier in the Field Force,” compares one of the men. “That’s a solo mental challenge, you versus the jungle. In UTK, we deal with urban areas and it’s tougher. Professional criminals can rob in five minutes and we have to take care of the public at the same time.”  

If selected, they undergo severe training. The Commander is reluctant to reveal too much though. Does it include being submerged in a lake for a few hours? Yes. And “endurance crawling” on roads for hours. What else? Braving sewage-filled tunnels?  

“That’s normal. Even JKR maintenance men can do that. We are called upon to do extremes,” he says.  

Everyone also usually has a black belt in either taekwando or karate (for close combat) and judo (for rolling and locking techniques). And there are monthly fitness tests.  

“My Deputy who is 55 still does combat scuba-diving and parachuting,” he adds. “There’s no difference in training for officers and men. During operations, the officer is the first one to risk his life. They don’t sit behind and order people to go in.”  

“We become more brave as we believe that our ajal (time to die) is fated. It’s only whether we die in a road accident or in action.”  

Sacrifice 

“We’re willing to die for the country,” says an officer. “We have a patriotic spirit. The money is secondary. If not us, who’s going to do it? Not everyone can get into this squad.”  

“Sometimes we have to leave home when our children are still sleeping. And we return looking at the moon. Other times, we are on 24-hour stand-by,” he continues.  

“If we go outstation, we can’t tell our wives where we’re going. Are they worried? Of course, tapi sudah faham, sudah terima (they have learnt to accept it).” 

“Some people think that being a VIP bodyguard is glamorous,” says the Commander. “But if anything happens, we have to put our body between the VIP and the shooter. We have to lay down our lives.” 

Do allegations of corruption and the like by Opposition parties affect his willingness to do that?  

“We cannot mix ideology with our jobs. If the government asks me to protect Lim Kit Siang tomorrow, I will obey.” 

Casualty figures are not revealed. However, for the extra risks to life and limb, the men in UTK are given a “danger allowance” of RM600 - RM900 (depending on the years of service – the allowances were increased last September) on top of their standard police salary scales.  

And if they do perish in the line of duty, according to the Commander, financial compensation comes from a group life insurance policy from Takaful (amounting to about RM125,000 per person – they have to pay the monthly premiums themselves).  

“It’s difficult to get extra coverage. When the insurance companies know what we do, they won’t sign us on,” he claims.  

As salaries in the private sector are double or triple, many staff have left to become bodyguards for businessmen or security company managers. 

“The junior ones can make anything from RM7,000-RM8,000 while the seniors can pull in RM12,000 -RM13,000. It’s very costly to train up someone in UTK. In the long term, the government loses out,” says the Commander.  

Nor does UTK get glamorous publicity for successful crime busts unlike other sections of the police force.  

“We are the unsung heroes,” he says. “But it’s not important that people recognise us or give us awards.” 

For him, the action is the juice.  

“I can earn much more outside. But money is not everything. Being a private bodyguard, there’s no further training and development. It’s stereotyped work, no job satisfaction there. Whereas in any operation, there’s a thrill, the blood is running.” 

And of course, there is the privilege of service.  

“The most important things are to follow orders, uphold the name of the police force and maintain safety. We have the satisfaction of serving the country.” W

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