KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Malaysia’s government announced plans Monday 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. 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 Muslim insurgency.
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 an estimated 200 armed Filipinos appeared at a remote coastal village in February and refused to leave, insisting that Sabah belonged to their royal clan. The territorial claim, rejected by Malaysia, triggered unprecedented gunbattles 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 the southern Philippines, but security forces are searching for some believed to be hiding on palm oil plantation land in Sabah.