KOTA KINABALU: “That is Sabah. And that is Sulu,” said Sadikul Sahali, the former governor of Tawi Tawi, as he pointed to two saucers on the table during an interview at the Hyatt Regency Kinabalu.
Drawing attention to a cup placed between the two saucers, he added: “That is Tawi Tawi.”
“Being sandwiched between Sulu and Sabah is not a good thing for us,” said Sadikul, who has seen Tawi Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province, hitting the news in Malaysia for the wrong reasons.
In all the reported abductions and other cross-border crimes in Sabah’s east coast waters, Tawi Tawi has been the entry and escape route. The gunmen would use any of the 107 islands or islets in Tawi Tawi as a staging point before entering Sabah to abduct victims.
“We have been told that they wait for a few days at any of our islands for word from their so-called contacts in Sabah,” said Sadikul, who served as governor of the 1,197 sq km province between 1998 and 2001 and again from 2007 until last year.
The hostages eventually end up in Jolo island in Sulu province that has gained the unsavoury reputation as the cross-border kidnap capital of the Philippines.
Sadikul’s son Nurbert succeeded him as Tawi Tawi governor. One of his daughters, Regie Sahali-Generale, is the mayor of the Panglima Sugala town while another, Ruby Sahali Tan, is a congresswoman.
Sadikul was in Sabah recently to accompany Nurbert, who along with a high-powered Tawi Tawi delegation, was promoting a business conference that was held at Tawi Tawi’s provincial capital of Bongao on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Nurbert, 35, said kidnap and other cross-border crimes originating from Sulu was “not unexpected”.
He then referred to the decades-old deadly clan wars in Sulu that had fuelled demand for weapons and gave rise to “criminal elements”, including a group calling itself Anak Ilu (Sons of Martyrs in Tausug language).
“These clan wars started due to property disputes or over women and are still going on.
“We have heard of these lawless elements being among those responsible for crimes,” said Nurbert, adding that they usually outrun security forces with their high-powered speedboats equipped with two 200-horsepower outboard engines.
Noting that both Malaysian and Philippine security forces have been pursuing these kidnap and other criminal groups in their respective territories, he said there was a need to revive joint patrols at the border areas that ceased about five years ago.
“We see a need for greater communication between our security forces to stop these criminals as fast as possible,” said Sadikul while acknowledging that eliminating crimes completely was impossible.
“We cannot get everybody. There are snakes in every forest.”
Sadikul and his son said increased security arrangements were just one part in tackling cross-border crime that included robberies, piracies and human trafficking between the southern Philippines and Sabah.
“We need peace, law and order but we also need economic development,” he said of the region that is the poorest in the Philippines.
“Solving livelihood problems while ensuring security and order is part of good governance. Hungry people are angry people,” added Nurbert, who is worried that businessmen, especially Malaysians, are reluctant to invest in Tawi Tawi due to security problems.
For Sadikul and his son, meeting Sabah’s business community is part of efforts to build confidence in their province that is the biggest seaweed producer in the Philippines.
“We need to do something. We don’t want to be known only as the place that is between Sulu and Sabah,” said Sadikul.
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