Apr 04 2013

Unrest in Sabah: How does it affect tourists?

Published by at 9:00 am under Borneo


Some 74 Malaysians and Sulu militants have died in a conflict involving Filipino nationals “invading” Malaysia’s Sabah that first flared in mid-February. The Malaysian government has declared Sabah’s east coast a “special security area” and British and Australian authorities have advised against non-essential or all travel to the east coast (the US advice to remain especially alert in Sabah remains unchanged). What’s the latest in the conflict, and what does it mean if you’ve planned a trip to Sabah?

A rally in support of Malaysian forces

A rally in support of Malaysian forces.

The unrest began February 9, 2013, when an estimated 200 armed Filipino nationals calling themselves the Royal Sulu Army landed in an area 100 kilometres outside of Lahad Datu, and took over the village of Tanduo; the clansmen’s leaders in the Philippines say Sabah is rightfully theirs because the territory belonged to their royal sultanate for centuries before colonial rule. The state is already home to around 800,000 legitimate Filipino settlers.

A fatal shooting of two policemen by the Filipinos on March 1 led to airstrikes against Sulu militant-held areas, reportedly bringing the death toll to 62 clansmen and nine Malaysian police and army personnel. On March 9, the government declared the special security area, fearing that other Sulu militants would attempt incursions. On March 24, a further four people were killed, and the government announced that coastal villages in the immediate vicinity of the conflict would be relocated. The militants claimed more than 100 Filipino fighters remained in the area and planned to conduct a guerrilla warfare campaign against the Malaysian authorities.

The special area runs from the tip of Borneo in the north, Kudat, to Tawau, right down south on the border with East Kalimantan, and encapsulates a large number of tourist destinations, including Sukau, Danum Valley, Sipidan (and all diving islands around it), Sepilok Orangutan Centre and the Kinabatangan. No military engagement has occurred in any of these areas and so far, the only fighting that has occurred is in the Lahad Datu area. The rest of Sabah is still open and there is plenty to do without having to venture into the secure zone.

A Sabahan waves a flag during a march of solidarity for Malaysian soldiers

A Sabahan waves a flag during a march of solidarity for Malaysian soldiers.

To be clear: it is only one area within Sabah that has travel restrictions applied to it, and an even smaller area where there has been actual military engagement. While this conflict is serious, you should not rule out coming to Sabah altogether as perhaps the biggest attraction, Mount Kinabalu, is not in the restriction zone.

Once at Mount Kinabalu, you can get local advice as to whether or not it is safe to travel anywhere in the restricted area. Often, this advice will be more up-to-date and more reliable than news sources and government advice. Of course, exercise caution and common sense before making any decision to travel, keep up to date with the local situation through a variety of sources, and make sure you have travel insurance and that your insurance will cover you if you do decide to enter the area.

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