Air and maritime patrols conducted by Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines over the Sulu and Celebes seas have widely been hailed as a success since their launch in 2017. The patrols curtailed kidnappings by the violent extremist Abu Sayyaf Group and led to the rescue of dozens of hostages.
Named INDOMALPHI, a moniker that combines the names of the partner nations, the patrols demonstrate the benefits of defense collaboration when countering extremists. A recent event in which two of three hostages died while trying to escape the Abu Sayyaf Group, however, shows that more work needs to be done and that the patrols are still needed, military officials said.
Philippine security forces rescued 18-year-old Indonesian fisherman Heri Ardiansyah, pictured, in early April 2019. He was captured by the Abu Sayyaf Group, which attacked the fishing vessel he shared with a fellow Indonesian and a Malaysian, on December 5, 2018, reported The Jakarta Postnewspaper. Heri managed to stay afloat for 22 hours in the waters between the Sulu Sea islets of Simisa and Banalao following an armed confrontation between security forces and extremists. His companions perished in their struggle to escape.
Ten previous kidnappings of Indonesian fishermen in 2016 led ministers from the three countries to sign the Trilateral Cooperative Arrangement (TCA) in June 2017, which initiated the maritime and air patrols, intelligence sharing and the establishment of Maritime Command Centers (MCCs) within the Sulu Sea region, according to the Manila-based foreign policy think tank Asia Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation Inc.
“This initiative has had a tangible impact on where there is a reduction of kidnapping and robbery cases around Sabah [Malaysian province] waters and the Sulu Sea since its implementation,” stated Malaysian lawmakers in the official statement of their parliamentary proceedings from April 30, 2019.
The first three years of the patrols’ operations saw 36 Indonesian fishermen kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf Group or its affiliates, all but one of whom was successfully rescued, the Postadded.
“Patrols are carried out regularly throughout the year at sea and air by using the main tools and weapons systems of the three countries such as ships, aircraft and personnel,” Brig. Gen. Sisriadi, spokesman for the Indonesian Armed Forces, told FORUM. Intelligence is exchanged between the three countries through the MCCs, which are located in Tawau, Malaysia; Tawi-Tawi, Philippines; and Tarakan, Indonesia. The main area of patrol is the border waters of the three countries with a focus on the Sulu Sea.
“The responsibilities of each country are coordinated through a joint working group meeting, which is routinely carried out as a forum for evaluation and division of tasks according to the development of the situation in the field,” said Sisriadi, who goes by one name. “The main task is to maintain stability in the region against threats of sea piracy, kidnapping, terrorism and transnational crimes.”
All three countries contribute warships and aircraft to the patrols, he said.
Trilateral maritime patrol exercises are held on a rotating basis at each MCC. The exercises include maritime cooperative training, tabletop drills and other activities, he said. Other trilateral exercises within the TCA framework have included land combat drills and naval exchanges.
“In the future, INDOMALPHI will continue to improve the effectiveness of activities in both the Trilateral Maritime Patrol and Trilateral Air Patrol and strengthen cooperation between countries through port visits, training and joint learning,” Sisriadi concluded.
Tom Abke is a FORUM contributor reporting from Singapore.