Tue, 23 May 2000

Malaysia in a fix over hostages in RP

By Nelson Graves

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters): Guerrillas holding 21 hostages in the Philippines have put Malaysia in a bind, forcing Kuala Lumpur to consider accepting thousands of illegal immigrants in surprise talks that irked Manila.

Malaysian envoys last Thursday met separately with Abu Sayyaf rebels on Jolo island, where the guerrillas have held the hostages for four weeks.

The unilateral meeting provoked quick criticism from the Philippines, which said Malaysia had jeopardized their own tenuous negotiations with the militants, as well as from foreign governments whose nationals are among the captives.

Philippine government chief negotiator Robert Aventajado, brushing aside Malaysia's assurance that it had cleared its talks with Manila, said of Kuala Lumpur's initiative: "This is not good because it would make our job more difficult."

Demands put by the rebels to the Malaysian officials underscored the diplomatic stakes in the hostage ordeal.

The Abu Sayyaf militants told the Malaysians they want the establishment of a commission to review the status of an estimated 500,000 Filipinos living in Sabah, a Malaysian state on the northeastern tip of Borneo island that shares a border with both the Philippines and Indonesia.

The Philippines has never formally renounced a claim over Sabah, which is adjacent to the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines where Abu Sayyaf guerrillas have their base.

While geographically contiguous, Sabah and Sulu are otherwise studies in contrast. With thriving tourism and plentiful natural resources including oil, Sabah is substantially more developed than Sulu, where an Islamic insurgency has hampered development.

Close ethnic ties between the Tausug people of Sulu and those living on the Sabah coast have facilitated the influx of illegal immigrants into the easternmost part of Malaysia.

A chronic labor shortage and economic boom in the 1980s and 1990s induced Malaysia to accept hundreds of thousands of immigrants. But a recession in 1998 prompted the deportation of thousands of immigrants, mostly to neighboring Indonesia.

Malaysian police rounded up more than 1,100 Filipinos in Sabah within two weeks of the April 23 kidnappings, stirring indignation in the Philippines.

The Philippines' immigration commissioner said Filipinos -- mostly women and children -- were being "herded like cattle".

"The roundup would seem to be Malaysia's revenge on the Philippines," the Philippine Daily Inquirer said.

Manila said on May 13 that "it would not hesitate to file a diplomatic protest if it confirms maltreatment of Filipinos."

Malaysia, wary of the diplomatic fallout, stopped the round- ups earlier this month.

Now the guerrillas are asking Malaysia to form a commission to examine the welfare of thousands of Filipinos living in Sabah.

"They said if these illegal immigrants are sent back to the Philippines, they will suffer both socially and economically," Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar said last Friday.

The Star newspaper said the Abu Sayyaf had released a memorandum on Jolo, 960 kilometers (600 miles) south of Manila.

"The commission should look into the welfare of the Bangsamoro people of Sabah and investigate the human rights violations committed against them in the past 20 years," The Star quoted the memorandum as saying. The Bangsamoro people come from the southern Philippines.

The rebels' demand is fraught with potential diplomatic consequences, not least of which is the possible calling into question of Malaysia's claim to Sabah and its policy towards illegal immigrants.

Syed Hamid acknowledged the quandary for Malaysia, which wants its nine nationals released along with the other hostages -- three Germans, two French, two South Africans, two Finns, two Filipinos and one Lebanese -- but not at the expense of its sovereignty or immigration policy.

"We will weigh (the demand) accordingly. If it involved our laws and sovereignty, we have to look in that context, but we also want to see the release of the hostages," he said."

Malaysia is loath to accept allegations it has mistreated immigrants. "It is always our policy that we do not ill treat illegal," Syed Hamid said.

Malaysia clings tightly to Sabah and plans to build a new naval base in Semporna town, near Sipadan Island where the hostages were seized, to help patrol the pirate-infested waters.

Another danger for Malaysia, which has not ruled out paying ransom, is the possibility its nationals could be treated differently from the rest of the hostages -- even released separately -- if it pursued talks on its own.

That could leave predominantly Muslim Malaysia open to charges that it had favored its nationals in talks with militants fighting to carve an Islamic homeland out of the mostly Catholic Philippines.