THE planned joint military training among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia will help fight homegrown terrorism and piracy as well as lead to improved trade in a vital sealane where more than 100,000 vessels pass every year, a congressman said on Saturday.
Camarines Sur Rep. LRay Villafuerte, vice chairman of the House defense committee, said the planned training is crucial to the Duterte administration because neutralizing Abu Sayyaf terrorists and protecting the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas from pirates will go a long way in addressing the festering peace and order problems that have hampered the growth and development of Mindanao.
“On top of being a defense initiative, the joint military training agreed upon by the Philippines with Indonesia and Malaysia would also be a big help in facilitating the movement of international navigation, trade and commerce in the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas, which has relatively received little attention compared to other more prominent maritime interests in the region,” Villafuerte said.
Villafuerte noted that the Sulu-Sulawesi Seas facilitate the cross-border movement of some 18 million people as well as the passage of more than 100,000 ships carrying 55 million metric tons of cargo each year, based on estimates made by the Indonesian foreign ministry.
“This is a vital sea lane that obviously needs to be protected from pirates and terrorists. We hope this planned defense cooperation among the three countries would continue and intensify so that the joint patrols and training would extend to countering other equally grave crimes such as drug trafficking and human smuggling,” Villafuerte said.
Villafuerte made the remarks in response to reports that military training of army personnel of the three countries will take place in Indonesia’s Tarakan in North Kalimantan, Malaysia’s Tawao Island and the Philippines’ Bongao Island in January 2017.
Citing reports quoting Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, Villafuerte said each of the countries would first begin its own army personnel training in January 2017 before conducting the joint training later in the year.
The three countries aim to form a special task force whose primary goal is to face the ASG, which was responsible for a series of recent kidnappings in Sulu waters. The move also forms part of the actions taken by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to secure the region.
Asean groups the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia, along with Thailand, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Villafuerte said this trilateral initiative, which began under the previous administration of President Aquino and sustained by the Duterte administration, would prove to be a key factor in developing Mindanao into a magnet of investments.
“The government is right in giving unprecedented focus on Mindanao’s development as a magnet for investments, but this might be all for naught unless decisive actions are taken to free the island of peace-and-order problems that have for long scared away prospective investors. Thus, this trilateral military training exercises will go a long way in not only improving peace and order in Mindanao, but also in revving up trade and commerce in the South,” Villafuerte said.
He cited, for one, recent efforts to develop the Southern Philippines into a transhipment point for goods enroute to Japan, China and other neighboring countries from a consolidation port in Indonesia, which were later stalled because of Jakarta’s concerns over having its shipments pass through Philippine seas infested with ASG bandits and pirates.
Suppliers from Indonesia have also restricted coal shipments to coal-fired power plants in Mindanao following a spate of ASG-led kidnappings of Indonesians who navigate the waters shared among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia to reach the Southern Philippines with their coal cargo, Villafuerte recalled.
Villafuerte said the joint training among Army personnel of the three countries will also complement recent efforts by the Duterte administration to beef up the security and border patrol capabilities of the Philippine Coast Guard through the recent acquisition of over two dozen ships and high-speed boats from Japan.
Trilateral talks among the three countries began in May this year, following a spate of kidnappings by the ASGA, which at that time had already held 14 Indonesians and four Malaysian sailors hostage.
Just last weekend, reports bared that two Indonesian fishermen on a Malaysian-registered fishing trawler were kidnapped off Semporna, Sabah by five armed masked gunmen in a speed boat that the Philippine Army said were possibly ASG terrorists.
The May meeting among top foreign and military officials of the three countries led to the release of a “Joint Declaration on Immediate Measures to Address Security Issues in the Maritime Areas of Common Concern among Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines.”
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