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Southern Philippines Could Be ‘New Somalia’

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A member of the Malaysian Maritime Enforcement Agency rescues an Indonesian sailor who was shot during a kidnapping on the east coast of Malaysia’s Sabah state. This handout picture was released April 16, 2016.

Indonesia and Malaysia are bolstering security along their borders with the southern Philippines, and an Indonesian official has warned that the area could become “the new Somalia” after a recent surge in maritime kidnappings.

Companies that ship coal from Kalimantan to the Philippines have been forced to suspend shipments or change routes after 14 Indonesian sailors were abducted at sea by Abu Sayyaf militants. Based in the southern Philippines, the group has declared allegiance to the Islamic State extremist group and is demanding a million-dollar ransom for 10 of the men.

Malaysia, which has seen four of its nationals kidnapped, has allocated 50 million ringgit (U.S. $12.8 million) to beef up security in its easternmost state of Sabah to contain trans-border crime in the area, the nation’s police chief told BenarNews.

The Royal Malaysia Police is establishing forward operating bases on islands in a special security zone off the state’s coast “to anticipate any future threats in the waters of Sabah,” said Police Inspector-General Khalid Abu Bakar.

Malaysia had earlier designated the area as the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), and bolstered security there following a daring 2013 incursion by a band of fighters loyal to a Sulu Archipelago sultan claiming the territory.

Indonesia, meanwhile, has invited foreign ministers and top defense officials from the Philippines and Malaysia to Jakarta on May 3 to discuss safeguarding maritime trade routes among the three countries.

“The agenda will be the possibility of joint patrols in the area,” Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security Affairs Luhut Binsar Panjaitan told reporters in Jakarta on Thursday, in announcing the meeting.

“We don’t want this area to become the new Somalia,” Luhut said, referring to the Horn of Africa country whose pirates raked in hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom payments between 2005 and 2011. Somalia also is home to al-Shabaab, a militant group linked with al-Qaeda.

Beheading threats

On Tuesday, Luhut said the shipping company that employs the 10 crew members kidnapped on March 29 had agreed to pay a ransom, but negotiations were still under way.

Abu Sayyaf has demanded a ransom of 50 million pesos (U.S. $1.07 million) for the 10 sailors.

The group for years has run a kidnapping racket from Mindanao and the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. Last week, it issued a video in which it threatened to behead one of four hostages on April 28, if a ransom demand for two Canadians, a Norwegian and a Filipina were not paid by then.

In November, Abu Sayyaf beheaded a Malaysian citizen, Bernard Then, who had been snatched from a seaside restaurant in Sabah in May and taken to the southern Philippines.

Authorities are not yet sure who abducted four more Indonesian sailors on April 15, although Malaysian officials originally pinned the blame on Abu Sayyaf, based on accounts from six crew members who escaped and made it to shore in Sabah.

Shipping stopped

A spokeswoman for PT Patria Maritim Lines, whose crew was kidnapped March 29, declined to comment on ransom negotiations with Abu Sayyaf.

She said the company had suspended all shipments after the incident, pending improved security conditions in waters near the Tawi-Tawi islands, where the kidnapping occurred.

“Even if another company requests a coal delivery to the Philippines, we will turn them down for now,” Sara Lubis told BenarNews.

PT Kideco Jaya Agung, a company based in Paser, East Kalimantan, said it was still shipping coal to the Philippines but had been forced to change routes to avoid the threat of piracy in waters near Tawi-Tawi.

“We’ve changed the distribution route of ships carrying coal exports to the Philippines. We use the Java Sea and Makassar Strait to reach the Philippines,” company official Siswoko told BenarNews.

New bases in Sabah

In Manila, Philippines Secretary of Foreign Affairs Jose Rene Almendras assured Malaysian counterpart Anifah Aman that his government was “taking all the necessary measures” to ensure the safe release of four Malaysian sailors kidnapped April 1, a Malaysian Foreign Ministry statement said Friday.

The new security outposts being set up in ESSCOM zone off Sabah’s east coast will be manned by Marine Police, Special Forces and Air Operations Force members, among other units, Police Inspector-General Khalid told Benar.

A new forward base has been operational since April 11 at Mabul Island, while another on Bangi Island would be activated soon, he said. Mabul lies off the southern coast of the eastern tip of Sabah, and Banggi lies off its northern coast.

On Monday, Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein announced that the ministry would station six MD-530 G light helicopters in the area by the end of 2016.

Sabah Police Commissioner Abd. Harun Rashid told BenarNews that the choppers would strengthen security in the zone.

Malaysia police were ready to assist Indonesian security forces in combatting piracy in the area, he added.

“Malaysian police and the Indonesian security forces must work together to find ways of a more coordinated action. We are ready for any further action by parties involved, including assisting on the kidnapping,” he said. (BenarNews)

Gunawan in Balikpapan, East Kalimantan, Indonesia contributed to this report.

  • La Munsterr..

    Indonesia and Malaysia should work together, we should just shot in sight any Filipino terrorists that tried to intrude our borders. Philippines has proved themselves that they cannot facing these bunch of terrorists. It is the time we use our new weapons to fight these terrorists who said they fight for Islam, but they kill our people who are Muslims too.

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  • La Munsterr..

    Indonesia and Malaysia should work together, we should just shot in sight any Filipino terrorists that tried to intrude our borders. Philippines has proved themselves that they cannot facing these bunch of terrorists. It is the time we use our new weapons to fight these terrorists who said they fight for Islam, but they kill our people who are Muslims too.

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Taliban-Era Repressions May Return: Taliban’s Women Activists Fear The Day

Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.

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Fakhr al-Madares is one of 600 Islamist schools in the western Afghan province of Herat. Rights activist Khalida Khorsand laments the proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching "radical Islam" to as many as 50,000 young people. RFERL

Khalida Khorsand, a 35-year-old rights activist from the western Afghan city of Herat, is skeptical about Taliban claims that it has dispensed with its strict rules against girls’ education and women working.

The militant Islamic group made the declaration in the midst of recent peace talks with U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad aimed at bringing an end to the long U.S. military presence in Afghanistan.

But Khorsand still remembers the notorious repressions under Taliban rule as a teenager in the western city of Herat when she risked the death penalty to study literature in a class disguised as a women’s sewing group.

“After nearly 18 years without the Taliban in power, we now see that the Taliban are coming back in Afghanistan and there haven’t been big changes for women’s lives — especially in rural areas,” says Khorsand, who has dedicated much of her life since 2001 to advancing women’s rights in western Afghanistan.

Even without the Taliban in power in Herat, Khorsand says, many hard-fought gains for women since the collapse of the Taliban regime already are under threat.

She attributes that situation to what she calls “a Taliban way of thinking” by many Afghans and a proliferation of unregistered religious schools in Herat teaching “radical Islam” to as many as 50,000 young people.

If the Taliban gets a role in the Afghan government as part of a peace deal, as Khorsand expects, she fears a floodgate will be opened for resurgent “radical Islamists” in Herat.

“I don’t know why this has been allowed to happen under the current government of Afghanistan since 2014,” Khorsand laments. “They are not paying attention to the rise of fundamentalists and radical groups in Herat.

“Now the city has become a safe haven for the radical groups that support the ideology of the Taliban,” Khorsand says. “The fundamentalist groups in Herat are very organized and have a lot of money. They take the young people into madrasahs and teach to them the principles of the Taliban, and they are having an enormous impact on the young generation.”

Those groups already have gained backing from municipal authorities for an unofficial ban on live musical performances in Herat and for a ban on celebrating Valentine’s Day — with both practices being declared “unIslamic.”

Khalida Khorsand
Khalida Khorsand. RFERL

In rural areas of Herat Province, where Khorsand worked for years to help women who are victims of domestic violence, Khorsand says she has seen disturbing signs of support for the punishments doled out by the Taliban under its strict enforcement of Islamic Shari’a law — amputating the hands of thieves, publicly flogging people for drinking alcohol, and stoning to death those who engage in adultery.

Students at Herat’s madrasahs deny being radical Islamists. But they also support a return to the prohibitions and punishments of the Taliban era.

“Allah says cut off the hands of a male thief and a female thief,” says Jan Agha Jami, a 21-year-old at the Fakhr al-Madares madrasah in Herat. “When men and women commit adultery, whip them if they are single. If they are married, they should be stoned, and the Koran’s rulings should be implemented in public.

“Music concerts are absurd because they are forbidden,” Jami tells RFE/RL. “Music is bad for the mind, memory, and even human psyche. When a girl performs in front of strangers, the whole society is corrupted.”

Reflecting on the growing popularity of such beliefs in Herat, Khorsand says “it makes no difference for women in Afghanistan if the Taliban exists or doesn’t exist.”

“The Taliban’s way of thinking about women is the way many people are thinking in Afghanistan,” she says. “A lot of Afghans have traditional ways of thinking and they believe the talk of the Taliban. Unfortunately, much of their way of thinking is against the rights of women.”

Move Forward, Step Back

To be sure, Khorsand says there have been important advances for Afghan women since 2001 — including language in the Afghan Constitution that enshrines the right to education and to work.

Women are members of parliament and can be seen on television, competing in sports, and performing in concerts in Kabul.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.

But the Afghan government since the collapse of the Taliban regime has included many conservative Islamists and former warlords whose attitudes about women are similar to the Taliban.

Sima Simar, the head of Afghanistan’s Independent Human Rights Commission, says the gains for women since 2001 can easily be overturned and have rarely been implemented in rural areas where most Afghans live.

The 2018 Women, Peace, and Security Index by Georgetown University and the Peace Research Institute of Oslo ranks Afghanistan as the second-worst place in the world to be a woman. Only Syria was ranked worse.

That study notes that only 16 percent of Afghanistan’s workforce is female and that half of all Afghan women have four years or less of education.

UNICEF, the United Nations children’s agency, says only half of school-aged Afghan girls now go to school, and that only one out of five girls under 15 are literate.

Nearly two out of three Afghan girls are married when they are teenagers or younger. On average, they are sent by their parents into arranged marriages between the ages of 15 and 16.

Most imprisoned Afghan women have been jailed for so-called “morality crimes,” such as leaving an abusive husband or demanding to marry a man of their own choosing.

A study issued in January by UN Women and the nongovernmental gender equality group Promundo found that 80 percent of Afghan women have experienced domestic physical violence.

That study found that only 15 percent of Afghan men think women should be allowed to work outside of their home after marriage, and that two-thirds of Afghan men think women already have too many rights in Afghanistan.

It is in this environment that Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has refused to put a bill to a parliamentary vote that would prohibit violence against women — despite years of domestic and international focus on the legislation.

Ghani has appointed only five women to a 37-member council tasked with trying to pave the way for direct peace talks between his government and the Taliban at a time when the Taliban refuses to talk directly with the Kabul government.

Only 10 women were invited to be part of a 240-strong delegation for so-called “all-Afghan talks” with the Taliban, and even then, the first round of those talks was canceled over reported complaints by the Taliban over the composition of the delegation.

No Happy Ending

Khorsand was one of about 20 women who, under Taliban rule in Herat, regularly attended covert literature classes for girls and women at a place known as the Golden Needle sewing school.

The experiences of those young women were documented in a 2002 book by Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb called The Sewing Circles Of Herat.
The experiences of those young women were documented in a 2002 book by Sunday Times correspondent Christina Lamb called The Sewing Circles Of Herat. RFERL

Lamb tells RFE/RL that although women have fought bravely for their rights since the collapse of the Taliban regime in late 2001, many are now concerned that those gains will be lost as U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration seeks a peace deal with the Taliban.

“Women are very unhappy because it seems as though in the rush to get out of Afghanistan, the Trump administration has prioritized only two things: that the Taliban renounce terrorism and that they stop attacking Americans and other NATO soldiers, and not that they respect the constitution and minorities and equal rights,” Lamb says.

“This has left women very exposed — which considering that women’s rights had been very much part of the initial reason for removing the Taliban, it’s very disappointing,” Lamb says.

“I’m sure that the Taliban will insist on having some share in power as part of negotiations,” Lamb says. “They are saying at the moment in these negotiations that things have changed, that they will allow girls to go to school and for women to work. But who knows what the reality will be were they to actually have power again.

“We certainly have seen in some areas [under Taliban control recently] women being lashed by Taliban because they’re not regarded as being properly covered,” Lamb says. “It’s very risky and I can see why women are extremely concerned.”

Christina Lamb: "I can see why women are extremely concerned."
Christina Lamb: “I can see why women are extremely concerned.” RFERL

As for the women Lamb wrote about in The Sewing Circles Of Herat, she says most have not seen a happy ending to their story after 18 years.

“Sadly, those particular women who bravely met under the guise of the sewing circles and who were writing stories and poems secretly, most of them have left the country or have stopped writing because they are not happy with the situation,” Lamb tells RFE/RL.

“One of them, a poet called Nadia Anjuman, was actually killed by her husband because he wasn’t happy about the fact that she was speaking publicly and writing about women’s rights,” Lamb says.

In 2016, Khorsand left Afghanistan for Ottawa, Canada, where she lives with her husband and twin 14-year-old daughters and remains in regular contact with rights activists in Herat.

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Khorsand tells RFE/RL she went to Canada for her daughters’ sake because it is her “primary duty as a mother” to ensure that they get the best education she can provide them.

Once her daughters finish school, Khorsand vows to enroll in a university human rights program in Canada — and then return to Herat “to continue the fight” for the rights of Afghan women. (RFERL)