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Malaysia Takes a Dive
The country's idyllic isles have become a kidnapping hotspot
By KEN STIER in Kuala Lumpur

September 21, 2000
Web posted at 12:40 p.m. Hong Kong time, 12:40 a.m. EDT

Pity Malaysia. Just as Muslim bandits in the southern Philippines were releasing the last of the foreign tourists seized during an Easter Sunday raid at a popular Malaysian dive site, another three Malaysians were grabbed from a nearby resort island on Sept 10. Lightning, it seems, can indeed strike in the same place (virtually) twice.

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The kidnappings have hit Malaysia's tourism industry hard. While the first incident on Sipadan Island may have put the precious volcanic island (off the east coast of Malaysia's Sabah state) on the mental map of tourists worldwide-- it was previously the preserve only of diving cognoscentičthe second kidnapping has dealt the country--and Malaysian pride--a cruel blow. Normally calm Malaysians are Mad as Hell.

But if Malaysians were caught with their proverbial pants down, it was because, well, they were down. Authorities had close to five months to gird themselves for future forays from marauding Filipinos, but it was only the day before the latest kidnappings that new security measures were finally adopted.

To be fair, there had been some new vigilance in the area. But clearly it had no effect. Consider this: Resort owners, on the advice of the police, had been instructed to turn off their lights in the event of trouble, such as the unexpected approach of a boat or two. So, as two powerboats turned up at the Pasir Resort on Pandanan Island at dinnertime on Sept. 10, the staff did just that. This should have caught the attention of the police posted on Mataking Island, five kilometers away. Perhaps too busy with their own dinner, the police didn't notice, and the thugs coolly made off with three fresh hostages.

It gets worse. When some resort staff, who managed to avoid capture by fleeing into the bush, emerged hours later, they took their own boat over to Mataking to see why the police had not come to their rescue. There they found the police boats mired in low-tide mud. "This is an unacceptable excuse... [and raises] the possibility of command failure of the worst kind," bellowed the New Straits Times newspaper, normally a virtual government mouthpiece.

The Star newspaper described the latest abduction as the country's "worst nightmare come true." The paper added that it "does not speak well of our national security despite repeated assurances from our leaders and it will destroy our tourist industry, wiping off years of efforts in promoting these idyllic tropical islands of Sabah as a diving paradise." The U.S. Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has already advised Americans to stay clear of the area, and the southern Philippines in general. (The one and only American hostage in the whole saga to date is 24-year-old Jeffrey Schilling, who walked into the jungle to meet his co-religionists but was taken prisoner after he made the mistake of getting into a heated argument about Islam.)

For its part, the government has downplayed the matter. The kidnappings have not been lead news items on the state-run TV channel RTM 2. Perhaps shell-shocked, the country's tourism minister Abdul Kadir Sheikh Fadzir has taken the ostrich approach--insisting the kidnappings would have no effect on its $3.2 billion tourism industry. Other officials have simply shrugged their shoulders and have said they are doing the best they can. "The Ministry of Defense has increased security on Sabah's East Coast," says Deputy Defense Minister Shafie Apdal. "But even with the presence of a doctor, one can not deter the flu from attacking." He added: "We can't give a 100% guarantee that such incidents would not occur again."

That's not exactly what Sabahans in the tourism industry want to hear. "We have a security problem, damage has been done and I hope it is not too damaging," quivers Sabah State Tourism Minister Chong Kah Kiat. The first to feel it, of course, will be the state's tour operators, some of whom have been uncustomarily critical of the government. One said he was sick and tired of hearing government officials say the Sabah coastline is just too long to provide effective security. The government has since decided to deploy troops on resort islands in the area, in addition to their current posting on strategically important islands.

Resorts owners are also being encouraged to hire their own security. But to be effective against lightning strikes from M16-wielding bandits, operators run the risk of turning diving meccas into sandbagged fortresses. Sunbathing under armed guard--more expected on, say, an Israeli beach--is probably not the getaway most visitors would have in mind. With such images, tourists may start giving Sabah's islands, as splendid as they are, a wide berth.

Analysts reasoned the second abduction may have been aimed at deterring counterattacks from an itchy Philippines military. That may be so, but it didn't work. On Sept. 16, Philippines President Joseph Estrada vowed "enough was enough" and launched a military raid to put an end to the five-month-old crisis. Several rebels have already been killed, as well as a number of civilians. Two French journalists among the hostages escaped on Sept. 20. (The locals now have an additional problem: protecting their shores from fleeing rebels, and stopping the continuing flow of illegal immigrants, adding to the estimated 500,000 Filipinos already in Sabah.)

In the meantime, the fate of the remaining 17 hostages--13 Filipinos, 3 Malaysians and one American--hangs in the balance.

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