Malaysia Detains 79 in Lahad Datu Sabah
Malaysian authorities announced Saturday that they had detained 79 people they suspected of being sympathizers of Filipino fighters who recently landed on Borneo in an attempt to re-establish a historic claim to part of the island. The government also raised the death toll in recent fighting between Malaysian forces and the militants to 61. Malaysian authorities said eight of the dead were police officers and the rest were militants. It is difficult to know if any were civilians because the government has restricted journalists’ access to the area.
The approximately 200 fighters arrived last month on Borneo and the government began air and ground strikes on Tuesday after the rebels refused entreaties by both the Philippine and Malaysian authorities to leave peacefully. The flare of violence is rooted in the claims of a Filipino sultan over part of what is now the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island, a short speedboat ride from the southern Philippines. There are an estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah, according to Philippine government estimates. Many are undocumented workers and some claim to have been mistreated by employers and local Malaysian authorities. Many Filipinos support Sabah being returned to their country, though they want their government to pursue that through nonviolent, legal means.
The announcement of the detentions on Saturday raised concerns among human rights activists. Human Rights Watch called on the Malaysian government to either charge those detained with a criminal offense or release them. The group also asked the Malaysian government to be more forthcoming with information about its operations in Sabah.
The Malaysian forces are continuing to scour the remote eastern coast of Sabah to try to find the remaining rebels. The Malaysian national police chief, Tan Sri Ismail Omar, told reporters on Saturday that those who were detained were being questioned regarding the incursion. “They were held on suspicion of having links with the armed militants,” he said.