Atee Stanley gestures toward the empty beaches of Mabul Island and the placid waters of the Celebes Sea, sparkling under a late afternoon tropical sun. "Lots of our guests think it's the safest time to come. Unfortunately," she adds with a wry smile, "the others who haven't come don't think so."
In normal times, enthusiasts travel here to seek out the famed coral reef and teeming marine life at what is considered one of the world's top diving centers. But these are difficult days. Diving aficionados may be a breed for whom no distance is too great for the perfect dive, but, risking kidnapping?
Following two cross-border kidnappings since April by gun-toting bandits from the southern Philippines, many Western embassies are advising against travel to these islands. The heavy security now ringing the resorts on the southeastern coast of Malaysia is indicative of the lengths to which authorities in this developing nation must go to protect their fledgling tourism industry.
Enter the Malaysian Navy's Special Forces - the equivalent of the US Navy Seals - who are conducting round-the-clock patrols of the busy sealanes where the frontiers of three countries - Malaysia, the Philippines, and Indonesia - converge.
On Mabul Island, the resort that Ms. Stanley manages is an hour's boat ride off the Malaysian state of Sabah. It's a five-star hotel equipped to meet a diver's every need, but these days, fewer than a dozen of the resort's 90 chalets are occupied. A second resort just up the beach, built in the style of a traditional Borneo stilt village, is closed altogether.
To see why, you need look no further than the horizon. A clump of soaring palm trees to the south marks Sipadan Island, where, last April, kidnappers arrived by speedboat and seized 21 hostages, including 10 foreigners. It took four months and millions of dollars in ransom payments before most of the hostages were freed. Suddenly, an exotic getaway location took on an altogether more sinister reputation.
The region's image was further tarnished in September when a second group of hostages, all Malaysians, was snatched by gunmen - belonging to the same notorious Abu Sayyaf group - from another island, Pandanan, to the north of Mabul. The three hostages were rescued by Philippine troops on Oct. 25 after a month-long offensive on the Abu Sayyaf stronghold in the southern island of Jolo.
It was in response to these embarrassing breaches of national security that Lt. Mohamed Mohsin and his men were drafted into the town of Semporna. The Special Forces, or Paskal, roam the seas aboard inflatable boats capable of over 40 knots - intended to be fast enough to overhaul the craft used by the Abu Sayyaf. A 7.62 mm machine gun is mounted on the vessel's foredeck. They have orders to open fire on any vessel refusing to stop. Any vessels found outside designated maritime channels are halted and searched.
Immigrant sea traffic
"We stop as many as forty boats a day," says Lieutenant Mohsin. "So far we've only found illegal immigrants. But it's not our job to bring them in. We're only interested in the bad guys," he grins. The armed forces remain on high alert, however. With the Philippine Army closing in on the remaining Abu Sayyaf elements on Jolo, there's the possibility that the gunmen could try to break the naval blockade around the island, and make the one-hour speed-boat ride to Malaysian waters.
The gray hull of a Navy patrol craft roars past nearby. There are eight of these vessels deployed around the coast of Sabah now, backed up by air patrols by PC130H aircraft and a number of Hawk fighter jets. An Army battalion has been moved to Semporna, with orders to coordinate movements with the Navy.
If such measures sound impressive, Defense Minister Najib Tun Razak admits the reality is different. "It's a daunting task," he says. "The Sabah coastline measures [nearly 1,000 miles], and there are 106 inhabited islands." The armed forces have had to set priorities. "The important islands - the ones with resorts - are top of the list. But to put up an effective cordon we need more assets and more resources."
What makes the job of sealing the border even harder is the presence in Sabah of a huge immigrant population from Malaysia's two largest neighbors - Indonesia and the Philippines. The Indonesians drift in from the province of Kalimantan to the south, attracted by the jobs and higher wages to be found on the Malaysian side of the border.
But the Filipino community is more numerous, said to make up one-quarter of Sabah's 1.8 million population. Many arrived in the 1970s, part of an exodus of Muslims seeking refuge from the civil war on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Others came to escape the poverty that has fueled the long-running conflict between Manila and the country's Muslim minority.
It is Filipinos who live in the run-down little stilt village that occupies one-half of the islet of Mabul. The inhabitants lead an almost entirely sea-borne existence, catching fish, and indulging in a little smuggling on the side, officials say. The village is separated from Mabul's two diving resorts by a barbed wire fence. Soon after the Sipadan kidnapping, boatloads of Malaysian police arrived to search the village. Hundreds of people who were unable to produce residence permits were taken away. In early October, it was announced that a Special Task Force had shipped home nearly 600 illegal Filipino migrants. Such raids have become a daily fact of life in many parts of Sabah. Many other would-be immigrants have been detained at sea, and put into grim-looking detention camps, complete with high walls and barbed wire.
For people who've come to consider Sabah their home, the clampdown spells fear. At the small immigration office in Semporna, a knot of anxious-looking men and women stands waiting, clutching scraps of paper they hope will prove their right to live in Malaysia. "We don't want to go back to the Philippines," one man says. "We've settled here - there's nothing for us back there."
But since the kidnappings exposed the dangers of this porous maritime border, the Malaysian authorities have plainly come to consider the presence of some 600,000 illegal migrants in Sabah an issue of national security. "We've been quite liberal in the past," says Minister Razak. "This is an island community where people don't recognize international boundaries. But for a state like Sabah to have such a large number of illegal immigrants, that's not tenable either."
Back at the diving resort, a group of Filipino employees sits whiling away the afternoon playing cards. "There's no Abu Sayyaf here," says Lisa, a diving instructor. "We have the police and marines," she added. "Everything is OK."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society