By Azrul Mohd Khalib. First published in The Star Online 13 September 2016

YOU can tell that President Rodrigo “Rody” Duterte is a man on a mission. It is still less than 100 days into his term as the president of the Philippines. Yet, it has already been filled with so many controversial initiatives and actions which mirror the work he did in his decades as mayor of Davao City. He is clearly steadfast in his commitment to translate what he did during his time as mayor onto the national stage.

The consequences and impact of this commitment and his gung-ho style of governance continue to be felt across the country and region, rippling outwardly, touching lives, bolstering domestic approval ratings, and knocking noses out of joint (notably a group of people declared “sons of whores” comprising Barack Obama, Pope Francis and the US Ambassador to the Philippines).

The Filipino people obviously love him. And it seems he can do no wrong.

They love his tough talk and what he is doing in running the country. Duterte currently enjoys record high approval ratings at 91%, which would be the envy of any politician or dictator. No other leader of a democratic country enjoys this level of public support. Vladimir Putin is currently the closest at 82%.

While he basks in the approval of the Filipino people, the body count in his declared “war on drugs” continues to increase. More than 2,500 people have already lost their lives in this brutal conflict – a death rate of around 38 people per day.

During his presidential campaign, Duterte promised to suppress crime, drugs and corruption in government within the first six months of his presidency. He might just achieve it.

His restless eyes have now turned to the simmering insurgency in the Mindanao region which has experienced decades of armed conflict and unrest.

In the wake of last week’s bombing in Davao City, his hometown, he has vowed to personally tear apart and eat Abu Sayyaf militants. Fourteen civilians died in the bombing and an attack on the Filipino military in late August claimed the lives of 15 soldiers.

Duterte has intensified offensive military operations against Abu Sayyaf beginning with a troop deployment of 9,000 into the Sulu province. This is the largest troop concentration in a single area in recent memory for the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and demonstrative of the government’s resolve to crush the militant group. Six battalions are already in Sulu.

It is too early to say whether or not he will be successful in realising this objective. After all, his predecessors have attempted to do so in the past but probably nothing comparable to the scale attempted this time around.

However, for Malaysia, this renewed offensive in the Sulu province should be a cause for serious concern as it would have impact on national security in the eastern Sabah region.

It is possible and likely that Abu Sayyaf militants seeking refuge and safe haven from the escalating conflict and skirmishes with the AFP will flee into Malaysian waters.

The Eastern Sabah Security Command (Esscom) comprises the districts of Kudat, Kota Marudu, Pitas, Beluran, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Lahad Datu, Kunak, Tawau and Semporna. The security zone is huge – 1,733km of coastline and an area of 31,158 sq km with 362 islands.

Even narrowing the active maritime security zone to between Sandakan and Tawau, it would be a formidable task for the land and maritime assets of the Malaysian Armed Forces, Royal Malaysia Police and Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency which make up Esscom’s security operations.

The reality is that it is not a question of “if” the militants will cross into Malaysian waters and seek refuge in east Sabah but “when” this will happen.

It is unlikely that Malaysia will permit the AFP to conduct operations within its waters. As such, Malaysian security forces must then decide whether to conduct operations to uproot and terminate the Abu Sayyaf presence on home soil.

This could be the beginning of a slippery slope which could escalate to a cross border conflict. Malaysia will not be seen as a neutral party in that conflict.

If that happens, I hope the Malaysian security forces’ familiarity with the terrain and superior military capacity are sufficient to overcome the militants’ expertise in asymmetrical warfare. It is worthwhile noting that facing battle-hardened Abu Sayyaf militants would be unlike dealing with that motley group of Sulu insurgents back in early 2013.

The large scale AFP operations in Sulu and increased armed conflict in the operations zone could also cause displacement of the civilian population and for them to flee to Sabah. This was what happened back in the 1970s.

Should this occur, it would be extremely difficult to distinguish between militants and non-combatants.

It would be the start of a humanitarian crisis.

So what’s going to happen in the coming weeks? At this point, only God and President Duterte know.

 

AZRUL MOHD KHALIB

Kuala Lumpur

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