ESSCOM: The Toothless Cookie Monster

Just before midnight on Sunday, 4th May 2014, four heavily armed men dressed in army fatigues robbed four fishermen of their boat engines off Tanjung Labian, the scene of last year’s bloody incursion by armed Filipino men.  Around 2.45am on Tuesday, 6th May 2014, just 51 hours after Sunday’s incident, five armed men also dressed in army fatigues kidnapped Chinese national, Yang Zai Lin from his fish farm on Pulau Baik south west of Lahad Datu.  The Marine Police sent two fast patrol craft, a PA-class and a PSC-class, to intercept the boat the armed men used. There was an exchange of gunfire between them near Pulau Mataking but the armed men evaded capture in international waters after reaching the Sibutu islands, some 10 nautical miles from Mataking, quoting the Sabah Police Commissioner, Datuk Hamza Taib in The Star newspaper.

I cannot but agree with Kalabakan MP, Datuk Ghapur Salleh who was quoted to have said the following:

““Esscom is a toothless tiger. They have no command of the police or the army. It is better to get someone who has power.”

For those who have never been to that part of the world, let me first orientate you on the landscape.

Map showing Lahad Datu and Pulau Baik
Map showing Lahad Datu and Pulau Baik

As you can see in the map above, Pulau Baik (where the incident took place) is at the bottom left of the map, definitely more than 30 nautical miles away from Lahad Datu.

A map showing Lahad Datu, Semporna, and their proximity to the Sibutu islands of the Philippines
A map showing Lahad Datu, Semporna, and their proximity to the Sibutu islands of the Philippines

The distance between Pulau Baik and the fringe of the Sibutu islands is approximately 50 nautical miles. In calm seas and in a really fast boat, it should take an hour from Pulau Baik to the Philippines.

Mataking island and its proximity to the Sibutu islands
Mataking island and its proximity to the Sibutu islands

The distance between Mataking and the Sibutu islands is around 8 nautical miles.

Looking at the landscape, it would be erroneous to treat the whole area like any other borders that Malaysia has with its neighbours.  And appointing a civilian to head trans-border armed incursions is downright negligence.

The marine police dispatched two patrol craft to intercept the armed intruders but stopped once the armed men were in their territorial waters for reasons only known to them.  This morning’s incident is the third cross-border kidnapping incident in the areas controlled by ESSCOM.

The two fast patrol craft sent to intercept the armed men are very fast ones indeed (see photos below).  Why they stopped once the armed men crossed into Filipino-waters puzzles me.  I do not know how well read the people running ESSCOM are, but maybe they only read certain parts of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) such as Paragraph 3 of Article 111 of the Convention that states the following:

The right of hot pursuit ceases as soon as the ship pursued enters  the territorial sea of its own State or of a third State.

Perhaps, Paragraph 2 of the same Article should have been read too! It says:

The right of hot pursuit shall apply mutatis mutandis to violations  in the exclusive economic zone or on the continental shelf, including  safety zones around continental shelf installations, of the laws and  regulations of the coastal State applicable in accordance with this  Convention to the exclusive economic zone or the continental shelf,  including such safety zones.

In this case, in fulfilling with Article 98 of UNCLOS, a breach by our patrol craft into the waters of the Philippines would have been a technical breach, with mutatis mutandis applied, based on an agreement between the Philippines (then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Carlos P Romulo) with Indonesia and Malaysia in July 1977 allowing cross-border hot pursuits and a system for families to cross the borders, while Article 100 of UNCLOS empowers the Philippines to allow that arrangement to be in place.

A Royal Malaysian Police's PA-class patrol craft
A Royal Malaysian Police’s PA-class patrol craft

With regards to this, the former Chief of Navy, Admiral Tan Sri Ramlan Mohamed Ali RMN, proposed in 2000 (after the first kidnappings in Sipadan) specific designated sea routes for vessels to enter Sabah, and enhancing monitoring capabilities by installing surface search radars (Project 1206) on islands off Sabah.  This was proposed in a meeting with the then-Chief Minister of Sabah, Tan Sri Chong Kah Kiat.  This proposal would have enhanced security in Sabah, especially in areas now under the jurisdiction of the ESSCOM.  However, when Chong Kah Kiat was replaced in 2003, the proposal was mostly forgotten.

Kidnapping for ransom in an area that had seen the death of several Malaysian servicemen defending the nation and later sworn to be defended from further incursions by armed Filipino men is unacceptable.  Three kidnappings involving four hostages in a span of six months is disgusting.  I am not sorry for standing by my opinion that the ESSCOM should not be headed by a civilian.  ESSCOM, in my opinion, is not RASCOM. Although the RASCOM (Rajang Security Command) was set up by the National Security Council in 1972 to combat communist insurgency by the Kalimantan Utara People’s Party (PARAKU) chiefly in Sibu, Sarikei, Kapit and Mukah areas.  There was not much cross-border incidents as the terrorists were mainly domestic, unlike in Eastern Sabah.  In the ESSCOM area, the security forces struggle to deny people from the Philippines from landing in Sabah for both economic and malicious reasons. No matter how developed the ESSCOM areas may be, you will still get Filipinos who would do anything in Sabah for personal gains.  The gold that can be found in Sabah is worth risking their life for, and there are tens of thousands just 50 nautical miles away who are willing to take that risk once in a while, group by group.

A Royal Malaysian Police's PSC-class fast interceptor similar to the one involved in the shootout near Mataking
A Royal Malaysian Police’s PSC-class fast interceptor similar to the one involved in the shootout near Mataking

If you look again at the maps above, both kidnappings took place on islands very close to the mainland.  This did not happen on the peripheral islands such as Mataking, Mantabuan, Boheydulang or even Timba-Timba.  It is a well-known fact that our waters in Eastern Sabah are very porous in nature.  I however suspect that the kidnappings were executed by people on the way back to Sibuti from either the Lahad Datu or Semporna areas.

Last month, I was in Eastern Sabah and managed to speak to a few personnel involved in guarding the islands in that area.  What I noticed different this time is that even the Army no longer has its Rover RHIB interceptors stationed on the islands of Siamil and Sipadan.  In the course of a week I was in that area, five fish-bombing incidents took place in Siamil alone and there was nothing the Army could do about it as they did not have a boat to pursue the perpetrators.  Red tapes caused by the formation of ESSCOM has slowed down procurement processes.  I was also told by senior operations people on the mainland that they are even frustrated by the Director-General of ESSCOM for rejecting the military’s need to conduct clandestine operations in Lahad Datu and Semporna to flush out suspected sleepers (as I would term them).  This clearly shows the lack of understanding by the DG of ESSCOM of military operations, and certainly of creating ESSCOM without giving due respect for defining its raison d’être with clarity and utmost conviction.  You cannot run an agency that fights trans-border armed intruders like a government department. You are bound to fail miserably.

An Army personnel stands guard at Siamil island and can only watch boats go by
An Army personnel stands guard at Siamil island and can only watch boats go by

As mentioned in a blog post of mine that I wrote last year, Defence-in-Depth is the method that should and must be employed in Eastern Sabah.  The first layer would have to be that of Force Projection – a term used to describe a nation’s ability to project power and exert influence in the ESSCOM area.  This has to be achievable and has to be sustainable in nature.  Firstly, all cross-border family members need to have their boats registered and each boat is assigned with a registration number that is stored into a database that can be easily accessed by patrol crafts, surface and aerial combat units.  These registration numbers must be displayed on the bow of their pump boat. They can only enter via the designated routes that Admiral Ramlan proposed back in 2002. We have many shallow reefs in that area and manned stations or posts can be built where each boat wanting to enter will have to report to first layer posts to register their intention.  Once their destination is made known, they will be issued with a colour-coded pass that they need to surrender at the second-layer post which would be at their destination.  The process is reversed when they want to return to the Philippines.  These first layer posts should be manned by the equivalent of an infantry section with RHIB interceptors at hand to intercept violators.  Each of these posts would also house surface search radars that transmits radar data to a sectoral command center.  Radar picket vessels should be on station to cover the approaches to and from Eastern Sabah and should cover all 1400 kilometers stretch.  This is where the two of the Principles of War come into play: the Concentration of Force, and Economy of Effort. Obviously, based on my observations at Siamil and Sipadan, the Angkatan Tugas Bersama 2 (ATB2) is ill-equipped to carry out such tasks.

Basing of assets also need to be considered.  While it is good to have major surface units such as the navy’s NGPV to be on station, these vessels are limited in endurance unless supply vessels are also available to re-supply and re-fuel.  These vessels need to be on-station for weeks before they can be replaced by another surface unit.  Major islands along the approaches from the outer limits all the way in should also have combat helicopters stationed on them.  Combat helicopters carrying two PASKAL snipers each can be airborne in under ten minutes to intercept armed intruders.  Certainly in the incident early this morning, the availability of such asset would have helped prevent the kidnappers from seeking refuge in their own territory.  Auxiliary ships, perhaps smaller versions of the Bunga Mas 5 and Bunga Mas 6 operated by the Navy with the assistance from MISC need to be employed in these areas to support operations.

Good intelligence is important.  There is nothing as valuable as good intelligence.  More often than not, even during the February 2013 incursion that led to the Ops Daulat, intelligence played an important role.  The coordination of good intelligence is equally important but I was told that such a thing does not exist under ESSCOM.  Valuable intelligence remain valuable only if they are acted upon in the quickest possible time, thus commanders need to have a good grasp of strategic and tactical knowledge that their Decision-Action tempo has to overcome that of the enemy they are fighting.  However as it is, the soldiers on Siamil and Sipadan can only watch if intruders sail past them at a safe distance.

On land, villages that may be used as hiding places for sleepers and intruders should be relocated at new villages and that would make effective the Chief Minister’s plan to introduce curfew in high risk areas.  Cutting off the locals from the intruders would also help in identifying them and distinguishing them from locals.  This is the area Mentek should be concentrating on as an Immigration officer and as an act for the Sabah people – weed out the illegals.

Of course, diplomacy has to be one of the layers of defence-in-depth.  In pursuant of Article 100 of UNCLOS, the Philippines must render all assistance in the repression of piracy as well as in upholding the 1988 Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts at Sea (SUA) that came into force in 2005.

Ops Daulat was not the first time that we have had armed incursions. on the 25th September 1985, 21 armed intruders dressed in Army fatigues attacked Lahad Datu town at 12 noon.  The Royal Malaysian Police’s patrol boats PX29 and PX16, later supported by PZ14 cornered the intruders at Mataking and decimated them.  While in pursuit, the marine policemen received an order from the then-Sabah Commissioner of Police to “not allow the pirates to live.”  Such was the statement of the aim, clearly defined, and that order determined the outcome of the battle.

Eastern Sabah is not just any security zone.  It is a zone that faces members of battle-hardened paramilitary groups that have been fighting the Government of the Philippines since the late 1960s.  Therefore, protecting this zone means having to conduct military-like operations that should be handled by professional combatants and not by civilians.  If the statement of aim of the strategy is to deny incursions, then it would have to be conducted with resolve and not through half-baked approaches or emulating other security zones whose methods are peculiar only to those areas, but not in areas managed by ESSCOM.

Leave defence of the nation to the professionals!

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