4:25PM Mar 6, 2013
QUESTION TIME The way the entire Lahad Datu intrusion/ insurgency/invasion – or whatever else one may want to call it – has been handled raises grave doubts over Malaysia’s ability to defend itself without fear or favour against anyone who infringes upon its territorial integrity and sovereignty.
That it has allowed itself to be lulled into such a state of complacency and lack of urgency, and seems to have totally underestimated the enemy is quite astonishing. And when it moved in after much foot-dragging it had nothing but embarrassment to show for it.
How could the authorities responsible for security have allowed the situation to balloon into such a serious violation of Malaysia?
And how could Malaysia have continued to allow a claim on part of its territory to go on for such a long time, even appearing to cuddle up to those making those claims?
Remember, this is the country, perhaps the first in the world, to have successfully contained and eventually beaten back the sustained armed communist insurrection and then faced down a confrontation from its big-brother neighbour Indonesia in 1965.
Have we gone slack in the intervening years and have we begun to severely underestimate the many threats of terrorist groups in this region? Are we fully capable of dealing with a sudden armed incursion into our country?
Just over three weeks ago a group of heavily armed intruders, variously estimated at between 100 and 400 arrived in boats from the Philippines and took over a village near Lahad Datu, causing alarm and fear among residents there.
That so many people were able to do this without being detected by the security forces not only indicates a severe lapse in intelligence but plain, old simple vigilance.
In an area which has had numerous incursions from terrorist and criminal elements in the past, the police and army should have been much more on their toes.
The intruders, who turned out to be supporters of the so-called Sulu sultanate which lays claims to parts of Sabah, had no trouble establishing themselves in the neighbourhood and settled in.
They claimed they were coming back to live in their homeland.
Our police and our politicians engaged in negotiations with them and wanted them merely to leave peacefully and everything would be over.
That was absolutely the wrong thing to do – our laws prescribe death for those in possession of arms, even if is just one single bullet, what more rifles and grenade launchers.
We not only used kid gloves, we send them food and water while we negotiated with them.
What kind of a way is that to deal with armed intruders? Should their religion be even an issue here? Is it not the duty of those in power to restore our sovereignty as soon as possible?
As an aside, Malaysia was formed in 1963 when Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore and the then Malaya amalgamated. If I remember my history right, a referendum in Sabah and Sarawak was held before that.
If that referendum was held, what right does any sultanate have to claim Sabah? Why did Malaysia even continue to pay royalties to the so-called sultan?
And why did these descendants of the Sulu sultanate decide now, a half century after Malaysia’s formation, to come and claim their homeland?
After the first breach – the landing of the intruders without detection – the next best thing for security forces to do would be to surround them and issue a warning for surrender.
If that was not forthcoming, then move in with air and other support to crush them once and for all. It should have been over within hours,
But the negotiations went on, and on and on. It took the brutal killing of two policemen before our forces attacked. Meantime, problems were escalating in Semporna with gunmen attacking police there.
We attacked the area the intruders were holed up in with fighter bombers, bombing and strafing enemy positions. But when the ground operations to sweep up the intruders began, there was nothing – no dead bodies, no injured, no subdued terrorists.
How could these terrorists, numbering as much as four hundred according to estimates but probably comprising some 200 or so, have completely vapourised into thin air without a trace?
They were supposed to have been encamped in an area of 4 sq km which was surrounded by the security forces. How could they have broken through the barricades?
Was the bombing so inaccurate that it had not even killed one intruder?
Even if it had been that inaccurate how did the terrorists get past the tight cordon thrown around them by elite forces?
Lax intelligence, surveillance
A number of things are very clear from this train of events. First our intelligence and surveillance of terrorists in southern Philippines is rather lax, laid back and dangerously complacent.
Terrorists are terrorists no matter their race, creed or religion and have to be treated as the deadly menace they are.
There is no excuse for the complacency given the many acts of violence that have been committed on Sabah by criminals and terrorists from the Philippines.
patrol vessel boat 110907We need to be real serious about intelligence and surveillance. We must patrol our seas and shoreline much more than what we are doing now.
Second, we must make clear our policy of not negotiating with terrorists, with the only possible exclusion being when we need to do that to preserve the life of hostages. That will discourage terrorists from trying this again.
Third we need to know whether the bombs landed in the right places and if they did not why not. It was a rather small area whose coordinates are known with pinpoint accuracy.
And we need to know how the terrorists could evade a tight security cordon thrown around them and escape.
What are the implications for security if they are not found?
If this is the way we have handed a small band of armed intruders, is there confidence that our armed forces will be able to do better in all-out war? The answer is obvious.
Lahad Datu shows there is a lot we need to fix right now in terms of our defence capabilities – and that’s an understatement.
P GUNASEGARAM is publisher and founding editor of KiniBiz, a business news portal formed in joint venture with Malaysiakini. Although he was never a scout, he likes their motto: Be Prepared.