Kuala Lumpur - Four Asean countries with sizeable Muslim populations have agreed to hold joint border patrols in border areas around the Sulawesi Sea to deter kidnappers and Islamic militants from carrying out their attacks. Philippine President Gloria Arroyo proposed the idea to her counterparts from Indonesia, Brunei andMalaysia during a meeting in Kuala Lumpur, the venue for this week's Asean Summit.
Mrs Arroyo had suggested that "joint patrols in the neighbourhood" be conducted regularly and not be limited to military exercises, as is being done now, said Philippine presidential adviser Jesus Dureza. It will serve as a "continuing security patrol in the sub-region", he quoted Mrs Arroyo as saying.
"This was welcomed by Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei. The details will be worked out by protocols," Mr Dureza told the Associated Press.
The proposed area for patrols forms a rough circle around the Sulawesi Sea. It comprises all of Brunei; Malaysia's Sabah and Sarawak states and its federalterritory of Labuan; Indonesia's Sulawesi, Maluku, Irian Jaya and Kalimantan; and Mindanao and Palawan in the Philippines.
Mr Dureza said the leaders in the four Asean countries had expressed concern about "transnational criminals and terrorists" in the area. Sabah, in particular, has been hit by numerous kidnappings in recent years, blamed on the Al-Qaeda-linked Abu Sayyaf group which operates in Mindanao in southern Philippines.
Mindanao is also the base of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a militant group fighting for self-rule. The Indonesian island of Sulawesi also faces the threat of militants. Maluku and central Sulawesi witnessed deadly clashes between Muslims and Christians between 1999 and 2001.
Apart from security considerations, the leaders are also concerned that the instability in the areas around the Sulawesi Sea is affecting economic development. Mr Ahmad Ali, chairman of a group of chambers of commerce from the region, said: "These incidents are isolated but it creates a stigma on the region. This deters investors from going in."
* Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei agree to joint patrols in border areas (The Jakarta Post, Dec 11)