MANILA, Philippines — The reported maltreatment of Filipinos in Malaysia following the outbreak of violence in Sabah is just the “tip of the iceberg,” an official of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) told the Manila Bulletin yesterday.

The source, who asked not to be named for lack of authority to speak in behalf of the ARMM, cited a litany of abuses that have been happening for years among many undocumented workers or migrants from the Philippines but never gained any attention from higher authorities.

“Finally, the sufferings of Filipinos in Sabah drew notice from Malacañang. We got similar, if not harsher, complaints directly from victims and made appropriate reports to higher authorities to no avail years ago,” the official said.

Local journalists have actually exposed some documented abuses but the reports seemed to have been suppressed in the mainstream media in deference to the Manila-Kuala Lumpur diplomacy that bloomed with Malaysia’s brokering of the Philippine government’s peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the official said.

“As if a blessing in disguise, the Sabah crisis brought to fore the cases of abuses on Filipinos in Malaysia, especially those undocumented ones,” the source said.

As early as 2011, the ARMM’s Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) and Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) had been receiving direct reports from some Filipino victims of abuses ranging from alleged torture of males to sexual attacks on females in Malaysian detention centers in Sabah.

Some of the victims, whom Sabah authorities tagged as “halaw” (Malaysian term for rejected or unwanted” for lacking travel or working documents), had confirmed the cases of three Filipinas allegedly impregnated in jail, ARMM’s DSWD and DOLE officials told a meeting in 2011.

Over the weekend, Malacañang said the alleged human rights violations perpetrated by the Malaysian police and military on non-combatants caught in the crossfire recently in Sabah are “unacceptable.”

Tawi-Tawi, the nation’s southernmost province and a component of ARMM, has been swamped by refugees fleeing Sabah amid horror stories of Malaysian forces staging indiscriminate raids on houses suspected of harboring remnants of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III’s followers, reports said.

A national daily said even pregnant women and children who are long-time residents of Sabah have been affected by Malaysian mortar attacks and house-to-house searches of people supporting the Sulu Sultan’s royal army.

Refugees by the hundreds have reportedly fled on any boat available, including traditional wooden lepa, used by Badjaos in the Sabah town of Semporna.

Some of those who fled Sabah for Tawi-Tawi and Sulu, another ARMM province, said they were treated “like animals” by the Malaysian troops.

“They dragged all the men outside the houses, kicked and hit them,” 32-year-old Amira Taradji said on Friday, recounting her family’s ordeal in the hands of raiding policemen in Sandakan.

Taradji alleged that raiding Malaysian troops ordered Filipino men to run as fast as they could and then shot them. One of the fatalities was her brother, Jumali, she said.
Those Filipinos caught alive and detained were not being fed, she and other refugees told Sulu officials led by Jolo Mayor Hussin Amin.

Mayor Amin, who spoke to many refugees, said the situation was “alarming and disturbing” because the raiding troops no longer distinguish illegal immigrants from holders of MyKad, an identification card issued to Malaysian citizens and permanent residents.

The Bernama, Malaysia’s national news agency, had confirmed police detention of Filipinos including four women for allegedly “abetting” the Sulu sultan’s royal army.

Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, said Friday in a statement that while the “situation on the ground in the conflict zone in Sabah is still quite murky,” Malaysia “should provide clear and accurate information on what had occurred” and “allow humanitarian access for the provision of emergency assistance to those affected.”

On Sunday, the Malaysian police shot dead a teenage boy and injured a man, bringing the death toll to 62 as the Malaysian security forces continue to launch assaults to end the Filipino militant incursions in Malaysia’s Sabah state.

Police chief Ismail Omar said the teenager, aged between 12 and 15, was killed when police sensed movements behind a bush and fired shots at it as they were frisking five people in Sungai Bilis village.

The identity of the teenager has yet to be disclosed. A man in his 30’s were also injured in the shooting.

Two policemen were shot and injured by gunmen in overnight skirmishes as the Malaysian authorities said the militants showed no signs of backing down.

The Malaysian police on Sunday raised the number of people they arrested under suspicion of sympathizing with the militant to 85 from 79 last night.

Authorities said they are concentrating efforts to hunt down the militants holed up in Kampung Tanjung Batu and Kampung Tanduo by launching airstrikes and sifting them out house-to-house. Some of the militants were found to be posing as civilians, the police said.
The Malaysian forces and the Filipino militants have been fighting since last Friday in an intense standoff that left at least 62 people dead, including eight Malaysian policemen whom authorities said were brutally murdered.

Malaysia began an all-out raid codenamed “Sovereign Operation” on Tuesday that included airstrikes and ground assaults on several areas aiming to flush out the militants.

Analysts said Prime Minister Najib Razak is dealing with the incursion crisis carefully as it could reflect on the national polls that are due by June.

More than a thousand Filipino Muslims from Sabah have already arrived in Tawi-Tawi to escape from being caught in a crossfire or arrested and jailed by Malaysian authorities.

An old man named Amir Elias, who arrived here a few days ago, said Filipinos in Sabah have to flee to avoid being arrested, jailed, and maltreated by the Malaysian police.

“Our movement has become very difficult while we were there, because the Malaysian police are just arresting anybody at random and jailing them. Worse, the arrested Filipinos are being beaten by a rattan pole stick. You will surely pity them when you see them beaten by these policemen,” Elias said.

At least 400 Filipinos were forced to leave Sabah due to fear of getting caught in the crossfire between the Malaysian security forces and Sulu royal army, based on the latest data of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD).

There were 432 displaced individuals from Sabah, who have been processed by social workers from DSWD-Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) since March 8, according to DSWD Secretary Corazon Soliman.

Among those displaced were 93 men, 66 women, and 93 children, while the breakdown for the 180 individuals was not available at press time.

Meanwhile, Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG) Secretary Mar Roxas yesterday met the younger brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan Bantilan Esmail Kiram, and discussed the possibilities of “disengagement” of arms.

During the two-hour talk at the DILG’s office in Camp Crame, Quezon City, the two considered the possibilities and mechanisms of disengagement although Roxas admitted that their talks are only “exploratory.”

Relatedly, the Volunteers Against Crime and Corruption (VACC) led by founding chairman Dante Jimenez yesterday urged the United States to make its voice heard on the Sabah standoff.

Jimenez noted that the United Nations has already called for the end of violence and to resort to dialogue, but Malaysia has not heeded the call
Jimenez also called on President Benigno S. Aquino III to start handling the standoff “hands on.”

He led the VACC Board of Trustees Monday in visiting Sultan Jamalul Kiram III at Astanah Kiram in Maharlika Village, Taguig City. (With reports from PNA/Xinhua, Nonoy E. Lacson, Ellalyn B. De Vera, Czarina Nicole O. Ong, and Edd K. Usman)