Returning Indonesia Migrant Workers Tell of Sabah Fears

Malaysian forces continued to battle Filipino militants in Tanduo villages in Sabah on Friday, with the death toll now at 60. (AFP Photo)

Malaysian forces continued to battle Filipino militants in Tanduo villages in Sabah on Friday, with the death toll now at 60. (AFP Photo)

Nunukan, East Kalimantan. Officials in East Kalimantan are reporting an increase in the number of Indonesian migrant workers coming in from Malaysia’s Sabah state as a standoff between Malaysian security forces and an invading cult from the Philippines drags on.

An officer from the infantry battalion posted on the Indonesia-Malaysia border on Sebatik Island, off the coast of Sabah, said on Friday that since the standoff began last month, there were around 10 Indonesians heading back from Malaysia each day, up from the usual figure of one a day.

The officer said the flow of Indonesians heading the other way had dried up.

The military has increased its patrols in the border area in anticipation of a surge of people, Indonesians and Malaysians alike, seeking to evacuate from the conflict in the Lahad Datu area of Sabah, where Malaysian forces are battling militants who sailed over from the Philippines in February and claimed the area as their own.

Amran, the head of Central Sebatik subdistrict, where the main border crossing lies, said he had called on all residents to report any suspicious activity or the arrival of any suspicious people.

He said the measure was aimed not just at foiling a possible attempt by the militants to escape to Indonesia, but also to prevent smugglers from exploiting the general confusion to send drugs or other illegal goods across the border.

Most of the returning Indonesian migrant workers are employed in the oil palm plantations around Lahad Datu, border officials say.

Kusmiati, a plantation worker from South Sulawesi, told the Jakarta Globe at the Central Sebatik border crossing that she felt unsafe in Lahad Datu, even though her employer and Malaysian security forces had reassured the workers that they would be safe.

“The situation there is very scary and threatening. There’s no activity going on. Since the conflict began, we’ve just been holed up in our dormitories,” she said, adding that every night they could hear the rumble of gunfire coming from the nearby village of Tanduo, where the militants are making their stand.

“I’d rather go home and then come back once things are back to normal.”

Jamal, another plantation worker, said the Malaysian authorities appeared to be taking the workers’ security seriously by deploying soldiers to the dormitories and restricting access to the plantation areas.

Still, he said he felt safer going back to Indonesia and waiting until the standoff was over.

The nearly month-long standoff was sparked by an incursion by a group of followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed heir to the former southern Philippine sultanate of Sulu, which had a historical claim to Sabah. Some 60 people have been killed as security forces battle the militants.