IT WAS deja vu for La Utu Raali when the Indonesian fisherman who three years ago came face to face with gunmen who held him hostage in Jolo island.
At around noon on Monday (Sept 22) seven masked men, travelling in two pump boats, boarded a Malaysian-registered fishing trawler off Lahad Datu in the east coast of Sabah close to the southern Philippines.
They rounded up the four crew, including La Utu, who is the skipper.
The 54-year-old from Sulawesi, according to a Philippines intelligence officer, told the men not to abduct him as he had previously been kidnapped by them. This was in 2016.
At around noon on Nov 5 of that year, five masked gunmen snatched two Indonesian fishermen, including La Utu, in the waters off Kretam in the east coast of Sabah. The kidnappers demanded RM1mil for each kidnap victim.
After a fraction of the ransom was paid, the Abu Sayyaf gunmen released them.
During this latest incident, a gunman recognised him as the hostage held for 460 days in Jolo island and agreed to release La Utu as they were afraid that their leader, Salip Mura, would scold them.
Salip is a notorious Abu Sayyaf sub-leader responsible for several cross-border kidnappings.
The KFR (kidnap for ransom) gunmen spoke in fluent Malay and Tausug (in the Philippines; Suluk in Sabah). The kidnappers are believed to be Suluk who spoke Malay fluently as they lived in Sabah.
The next day, Esscom (Eastern Sabah Security Command) commander Datuk Hazani Ghazali told the media that spotters, who passed information to the KFR group, had become kidnappers.
"These spotters are Filipino illegal immigrants in Sabah and are adept at moving around in the waters of the Esszone (Eastern Sabah Security Zone)," he said.
According to a Philippines intel source, a gunman asked the other three fishermen "Unu bangsmu yan? (What is your race?)", and a victim answered,"Tausug Bajau aku "I'm Tausug Bajau)". Fearing that he would be a kidnap victim, a fisherman also claimed he was a Suluk.
The gunmen told them that if they managed to kidnap fishermen in a nearby trawler, they would release all four of the crew in the first boat.
Some of the gunmen headed to the second trawler. They abducted all three Indonesian fishermen on board. They then headed towards the chain of Tawi Tawi islands in the southern Philippines that straddles Sabah waters.
The Philippines intel officer joked with me that probably the KFR (kidnap for ransom) gunmen released La Utu because they did not want to repeat a similar mistake.
On June 18, KFR gunmen abducted nine fishermen, who were mostly sea gypsies, in a Malaysian-registered trawler in waters off Lahad Datu. They were brought to Jolo island. After four days, the nine were released without any ransom paid.
The KFR had kidnapped people from their own community.
It was like balik kampung (a Malay phrase for returning home) or balik bayan (a Filipino visiting or returning to the Philippines) for the nine. The nine are believed to be still stuck in their home country. They are not allowed to return to Sabah as they have been living in the state illegally.
It is not the first time the KFR group kidnapped the wrong target.
On Sept 11,2018, men armed with M16s boarded a fishing trawler with a Malaysian flag near Pulau Gaya in Semporna. They assumed that the fishing crew were Malaysian as the boat flew a Malaysia flag.
However, they got it wrong and kidnapped Indonesian crew members who fetched lower ransom.
For many Malaysians, news of the kidnapping of three Indonesians on Monday was deja vu. Not again, they groaned on social media. Some questioned why such cross-border abduction still happened in the new Malaysia.
The threat of kidnapping like what the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Abdul Hamid Bador told the media in June is still high. Attacks by the KFR groups, Hamid said, could happen any day and at any time.
Hamid is right.
As long as there is no law and order and prosperity in our southern Philippines neighbour, the threat will always be there.
But to be fair to our police force, the last kidnapping of a tourist in the east coast of Sabah was when Chinese tourist Gao Hua Yuan was abducted in Semporna waters on April 2,2014.
That was five years ago. Since then our security forces have tightened security at our island resorts, and tourists are safe.
However, the threat is still there.
We're lucky a Malaysian did not become part of the statistic during Monday's kidnapping. If not, it would have been deja vu.
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