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Hamletting? KL to move villagers out of war zone

/ 01:08 AM March 26, 2013

KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia’s government on Monday announced plans to relocate villagers in parts of Borneo vulnerable to intruders from the restive southern Philippines.

The plan underscores a surge in fears about public safety following an armed intrusion by a Philippine clan last month that has left at least 75 people dead in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state.

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It also highlights concerns that the intruders received help from some Filipinos who resettled in Sabah over the decades and became Malaysian citizens.

Prime Minister Najib Razak announced the plan as part of measures to bolster security that also include increasing military forces in Sabah.

Najib did not say how many people would be affected or when the relocation might occur.

He said it would initially involve Sabah’s eastern seaboard, which can be reached within an hour by boat from southern Philippine islands that have been wracked by a decades-long Moro insurgency.

“The primary cause of the invasion of terrorists … is the existence of settlements considered easily exposed to the danger of infiltration by illegal immigrants and stateless persons,” Najib said.

He added relocations would affect areas near the invasion site but could be expanded to the entire state, which for centuries has had a porous sea border with southern Philippines.

Sabah is home to more than 3 million people, about 800,000 of whom are Filipinos who came to Malaysia seeking jobs and stability.

Border security has long been problematic, with illegal immigrants and criminal suspects repeatedly slipping past naval patrols and entering Sabah by sea.

The state suffered its worst security scare in decades when the armed Filipinos appeared at a remote coastal village in February and refused to leave, insisting that Sabah belonged to their royal clan.

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The territorial claim, rejected by Malaysia, triggered unprecedented gun battles that killed eight Malaysian policemen, a soldier and scores of Filipino gunmen and their alleged sympathizers who provided them with shelter, food and information.

Some activists say decades-old flaws in Malaysia’s immigration and security policies enabled the Filipinos to launch their siege with relative ease and elude security forces with the assistance of allies living in Sabah.

The incursion has forced the government to take steps to convince the public that it is able to safeguard national sovereignty ahead of general elections that must be held before the end of June.

Dozens of the Filipino clansmen are believed to have fled back to southern Philippines, but security forces are searching for some believed to be hiding on palm oil plantation land in Sabah.

The government has released only sketchy details on the operation and have indicated they were struggling to stamp the invaders out amid fears militants may have melted away into area populations with the support of locals.

Last week, a Malaysian court charged eight Philippine nationals with terrorism-related offenses, which is punishable by death.

They were among more than 100 arrested—apparently Malaysian residents—on suspicion of complicity in the incursion.

In a report by Malaysian state radio, Maj. Gen. Zulkiflee Mazlan said  differentiating Sabah villagers from Filipino migrants was difficult.

He said many Sabahans, the Suluk and the Badjao, were “descendants of the Sulu people and they have been living in Sabah for generations now.”

Zulkiflee issued the statement during a news conference in Petaling Jaya in the wake of the deaths of two children and the wounding of another boy by Malaysian security forces in Tanjung Batu in Lahad Datu on Sunday, according to the radio report monitored yesterday in Digos, Davao del Sur. With reports from AP; AFP; and Allan Nawal and Karlos Manlupig, Inquirer Mindanao

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TAGS: Borneo, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Malaysian citizens, Prime Minister Najib Razak, Sabah, Sabah Crisis, Sabah state, war zone
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