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Economic crisis in Tawi-Tawi looms amid Malaysia's closure of sea routes to Sabah

Economic News • 18:14 PM Fri Apr 15, 2016
John Unson

COTABATO CITY --- Residents of Tawi-Tawi are now suffering from the effects of Malaysia’s shutdown of shipping routes linking their island towns to Sabah to prevent intrusion by kidnappers from the dreaded Sulu-based Abu Sayyaf group.The Abu Sayyaf, whose revolutionary banner now is the black flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, traditionally keep captives in Sulu, known throughout the world as hotbed of Islamic militancy and where Filipino and foreign kidnap victims are beheaded if ransom demands are not met.Officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao on Thursday said traders and entrepreneurs in Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost province of ARMM, have no way but suspend their trading activities with contacts in Sabah to avoid getting into trouble with Malaysian forces guarding their territorial waters.The blockade reportedly began more than a week ago following pirate-style abductions by Abu Sayyaf bandits from Sulu, also a component province of ARMM, of Malaysians and other seafaring foreigners right at the seas inside the territory of Malaysia.Lawyer Laisa Alamia, executive secretary of ARMM, said the regional government’s Department of Trade and Industry noticed in recent days a sharp rise in prices of food supplies, including rice, in stores in Bongao, capital of Tawi-Tawi, and in nearby islands as an aftermath of what is for her a saddening development. Merchants in Tawi-Tawi import rice and about 80 percent of commercial goods sold to local consumers from Sabah, which is nearer than Zamboanga City, a commercial hub in Administrative Region 9, which covers southern Philippine cities and provinces around ARMM.People in Tawi-Tawi also buy diesel, gasoline, kerosene and mechanical lubricants from Sabah, which are more than 20 percent cheaper than what residents of mainland Mindanao buy from outlets of big players in the national petroleum industry.The Abu Sayyaf has been using Sulu as springboard for its kidnapping activities for almost two decades now and the provincial government there has also been subject of criticisms that long too for failing to address the problem.Tausug local officials and military sources said the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu had generated in the past three years alone more than P2 billion worth of accumulated ransoms collected from families of the Filipinos and foreigners kidnapped in nearby Philippine provinces and abroad.The group has uncontrollably been using Sulu as harboring site for kidnap victims since 2000, pioneered by the late Ghalib Andang, known as Robot,” who held captive in the province many foreign tourists abducted in Malaysia to drumbeat their bid for an Islamic state in the country’s south.The late Muammar Gaddafi, then president of the now defunct Libyan Arab Jamahiriya state, helped secure the release of the captives of Andang and his men, through an emissary, Ambassador Rajjab Azarouq, who reportedly gave them P500 million cash as livelihood assistance to hasten their return and assimilation into the mainstream. If this closure of the Philippine-Sabah sea routes will continue in the next three months, people in Tawi-Tawi will experience what people in drought-stricken areas in Mindanao are now suffering from,” said a Chinese-Samah businessman, who requested anonymity.The source, in an email Thursday night, said Malacañang and Malaysia need to bilaterally address the trading constraints now affecting the merchants in Sabah and in Tawi-Tawi.The congressional representative of Tawi-Tawi, Congresswoman Ruby Sahali, and her younger brother, Gov. Nurbert Sahali, both appealed to the Department of Foreign Affairs to help address the issue through the Malaysian embassy in Metro Manila. This problem is so serious. At least 13 wooden-hulled vessels carrying food supplies from Sabah, bound for our province, were recently stopped by Malaysian authorities,” said Rep. Sahali.She said rice from Sabah before the Malaysian government closed the shipping routes was only P630 per bag in Tawi-Tawi. The price of rice now in the island province is from between P1,100 to P1,250 per bag as a result of the blockade, she added.Alamia said ARMM’s chief executive, Regional Governor Mujiv Hataman, is now in Manila discussing the problem with national officials.She said the executive department of ARMM is optimistic the Philippine and Malaysian governments can reach a diplomatic compromise on the issue. The kidnapping activities of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu are now affecting the lives of innocent people in Tawi-Tawi. It placed Sulu in the international map of lairs of internationally-recognized terrorists groups,” a ranking education official in Tawi-Tawi said.

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