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After standoff, signs of easing tension

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines - Filipino returnees from Sabah continue to arrive in Tawi-Tawi 3 weeks since firefight erupted in Sabah between Malaysian forces and armed followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. But there are signs the region is getting some normalcy back. 

In Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, fast craft vessel MidEast Express that regularly transports passengers to and from Semporna in Sabah resumed operations on Tuesday, March 19. 

It carried 40 passengers, including two Malaysians. Before March 19, the last operation of MidEast Express was on February 27, or before the first firefight in Sabah between armed Filipinos and Malaysian security forces on March 1.

Semporna is hours away from Lahad Datu. Bongao Coast Guard station commander Lawrence Roque said the captain of the fast craft vessel told him Semporna is not affected by the conflict there. 

The MidEast Express usually transports traders and businessmen. It requires its passengers to carry passports such that undocumented Filipinos in Sabah are not allowed to travel through the fast craft. 


Department of Social Welfare and Development Authority (DSWD) provincial chairman Hania Aliakbar said they are not expecting documented Filipinos in Malaysia to join the returnees fleeing Sabah. 

"I think they will be the last to move out of Malaysia because they have good jobs there. They have settled and they have documents," Aliakbar told reporters.

In the capital Bongao, it's business as usual. It's brisk for hotels and restaurants, which are packed with government officials and social workers helping the returnees. Journalists also arrive every day. 

Rappler also chanced upon local Commission on Elections (Comelec) officials re-training its members on the voting machines that will be used in the May midterm elections.

BUSINESS AS USUAL. Election materials in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.

Photo by Carmela Fonbuena

In Isabela, Basilan, provincial administrator Tarifa Ismael admitted it's going to be a challenge if Filipinos from Sabah suddenly return to their homes in the province. She said Basilan is preparing livelihood for them.

But Basilan doesn't feel the crunch for now. It is busy preparing for a Gawad Kalinga project that seeks to build next week some 30 houses for impoverished residents there.  

Zamboanga's 'Barter' business as usual

Residents of nearby Zamboanga City feared that the impact of the Sabah standoff would spill over. But tension has subsided, said residents.

The city has a problem closer to home -- rotating blackouts.  

The city's famous "barter" area, where goods from Malaysia and Indonesia are sold, is not affected by the conflict in Sabah, according to businessmen there interviewed by Rappler. 

Stall operator Helen Falcasantos, 37, said business is not so good, but it has been like that for a while. The standoff in Sabah has nothing to do with it.  "Hindi naapektuhan ang supply namin dito. Walang epekto. Kung may customer. Okay naman din (It did not affect our supply. There's no effect.)," said 

Falcasantos said they buy their supplies from traders who come in ships. 

Another trader interviewed by Rappler but who refused to be named said there was just one occasion when the ship failed to deliver supplies.

She said she is not worried because the business traders who give them their supplies have permits to operate.

At the height of the standoff, the Western Mindanao Command (Westmincom) raised the maximum Code Red alert. This required all troops to stay in the camps and prohibited from taking a leave.

After assessing the situation Sunday morning, March 17, Westmincom kept Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi under Code Red alert. But it downgraded the rest of the command to Code Blue alert. 

"We have downgraded the alert status in areas which are not directly affected by the incident. Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi are still on red alert," said Maj Franco Alano, who was the acting spokesperson on Sunday.

March 25 operasi 

But if some of the returnees are to be believed, the worst is yet to come. 

DSWD recorded accounts of returnees who talk about a supposed "operasi" or operation by the Malaysian government that would deport undocumented Filipinos in Sabah. 

According to Assistant Secretary Sharifa Pearlsia Dans of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, two returnees told her about the operasi that is supposed to start on March 25. 

In Bongao, Jalil Jaladil talked about the same thing. A registered Filipino resident in Sabah, he has houses in Bongao Tawi-Tawi and Kunak in Sabah.

Jaladil is a businessman who gets his regular supply of gasoline in Sabah. The last time he tried to get his supply, Malaysian authorities said he couldn't do that anymore. Without his supply, he made space for 26 adults and some children to go to Bongao. 

He spoke of the same operasi. He didn't have a date, but he said news reports in Malaysia say it's going to be implemented "in a month." 

Alano said the Westmincom is not putting its guard down. It can raise the alert level back to Code Red anytime if the situation changes. 

"Although we downgraded, we are still on blue alert. We are still cautious and we are not fully letting our guard down," Alano said.

As many as 60,000 undocumented Filipinos had been deported from Malaysia at one point in the past. There are about 800,000 Filipinos in Malaysia, most of them in Sabah.  -