Of Heroes and Villains

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By Fathol Zaman Bukhari

The Lahad Datu incursion by a band of armed men claiming to be soldiers of the displaced Sulu Sultanate caught the whole nation by surprise. The standoff began when Agbimuddin Kiram, one of the claimants to the Sulu Sultanate, landed with at least 101 of his followers in the village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu District on February 11. They had arrived from the nearby islands in Southern Philippines by boats like their forefathers had done before them.

Of Heroes and Villains

Kiram’s singular intention was clear. He wanted to exert his claim over Sabah, which he and a couple of his relatives have been pursuing, without much success, since the formation of Malaysia in September 1963.

Incidentally, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu receive a RM5300 cheque yearly from the Malaysian Embassy in Manila. The money is considered as cessation payment pursuant to the 1878 Agreement between the British and the Sulu Sultanate. The heirs, however, term the payment as “rent” and, therefore, have every right to ask for an increase or an abrogation of the agreement in its entirety.

It has been almost seven weeks now and the standoff between remnants of Kiram’s followers and the Malaysian security forces has not diminished in size and significance. Conflicting reports coming from the troubled spots in Lahad Datu had armchair analysts making all sorts of comments, some discreet and some very malicious.

I do not wish to add on to the exchanges although I find some of the comments completely off-tangent. Talks of a political conspiracy and of Anwar Ibrahim having a hand in the conflict are simply incredulous. The lengths some would go to ruffle feathers of those on both sides of the political divide is mind-boggling. They would do anything for a “fistful of dollars (ringgits)”.

Nothing beats experience, they say. Being someone who had served in this part of the country, not as a paper-pushing desk clerk at some nondescript government office in the Sabah heartland, but as a rifle-toting soldier on the shores of Kudat, the island of Bangi and Tawau in the late 1960s to early 1970s, I speak with a measure of accuracy and authority.

Let me start by saying that the borders of Sabah, especially the parts that face Southern Philippines, are very porous. People living in these border regions, like others in a similar situation, criss-cross each other’s territory as they please.

When I was stationed in Kudat and Dogoton on Bangi Island my primary task was to prevent the smuggling of contraband goods from the Philippines from reaching Sabah shores. My other responsibility was to secure the areas where we were stationed.

The task of securing was achievable but not smuggling. It was like a delicate balancing act. The islanders simply rode by in their motorised kumpits without so much as stopping to be checked. I gave up and  the Marine Police took on the job. How successful they had been I never got to ask.

The intruders, now termed as terrorists, are being hunted down. And at the time of reporting, some five battalions, army and Police, are in the vicinity to keep tabs on what remains of the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. Casualties and losses stand at 62 dead, 11 injured and 79 captured on the side of the terrorists while security forces suffered 11 dead and 16 injured. As in the case of land battles, the worst off are the people caught in between. Six civilians were killed.

Incentives to boost security forces’ morale were announced, post haste. And the one which many ex-soldiers like me cried foul was salary adjustments for both Officers and Other Ranks.  Army corporals and sergeants will enjoy an increment in their pay scale from Grades 17 and 18 to Grades 22 and 23, respectively. Officers of the ranks of captain to colonel will now be placed in Grades 42 to 52 bands. This is a hefty jump from the previous. I should have remained but that is another issue.

Opposition leader Tian Chua of Parti Keadilan Rakyat has been hounded for making a callous remark. He said those killed in Lahad Datu as “mati katak” (died in vain). This term may sound offensive to some but when we were fighting the communists at the height of the Second Emergency (1975 to 1989) so many of us “mati katak”. I can quote many incidents where soldiers and police personnel were killed without a fight, mostly in ambushes.

The winding Klian Intan-Keroh (Pengkalan Hulu) Road had witnessed many deadly ambushes sprung by the terrorists. In early 1975 a Police Field Force section on its way to collect rations in Keroh was fired upon. The entire section was wiped out. The same year a platoon of soldiers was caught in another ambush in Lapang Nenereng. Eight lives were lost. My soldier bled to death on top of a hill deep in the Gubir jungles of Kedah. He stepped on a booby trap. The poor chap could not be evacuated, as it was nighttime and the helicopter could not land.

These brave men “mati katak” but no one protested or made police reports on our behalf. Neither did we get a pay revision for our troubles. What luck!

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