Rice, fuel crisis emerges in Tawi-Tawi

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With sea lanes in trade routes to Sabah cut off due to a simmering conflict between Malaysian state forces and armed Filipino followers of the Sulu sultanate, rice and possibly other basic goods coming from the troubled state have become scarce in Tawi-Tawi.

The government is having difficulty checking dwindling rice supplies in the country’s southern backdoor, which is closest to Sabah.

Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, chief of the military’s Western Mindanao Command, confirmed what he called a “developing crisis” in Tawi-Tawi—disappearing rice and spiking prices of fuel. Both products are imported from Sabah.

“It may not be as immediate as it is but it is a developing crisis and the indicator is that the prices of fuel there has reached P100 per liter,” Ardo said.

On Sunday, the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in Tawi-Tawi said rice supplies from Sabah were running low for Filipinos who have fled back to the province for fear of fighting in Sabah.

Traders are having a hard time transporting rice and fuel from Sabah, as both Malaysian and Philippine forces are guarding the border. They also fear being mistaken for reinforcement troops for the royal army of the sultanate of Sulu.

Ardo said the Philippine Navy could not simply pull out one ship to ferry the 1,000 sacks of rice from Zamboanga to Bongao in Tawi-Tawi. Some of the Navy vessels were carrying out mercy missions near Sabah, patrolling the seas to guide escaping Filipinos.

Another vessel, Ardo said, was still awaiting a go-signal from the Malaysian government for it to dock.

“We have a problem about the shipment, that’s why I requested the national government to utilize the C130 plane but it can only carry as much as 250 sacks. The military has offered air and sea assets but our gunboats can only carry 20 sacks,” he explained.

Another challenge, he said, is how to spread out the military’s capabilities to the different island towns where there are reported landings of displaced persons.

Adm. Armando Guzman, commander of the Naval Forces Western Mindanao, said a wider area must be covered to secure and facilitate Filipinos who are fleeing Sabah.

Guzman said regular patrols in the high seas are also needed to ensure that no Filipinos will try to get out of Philippine waters to reinforce followers of the sultan’s brother, Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, who are holed up in Sabah villages.

“Our mission is to secure the borders, escort and guide commercial vessels ferrying Filipinos displaced from Sabah, and to bring them to the nearest Philippine shores,” Guzman said.

Ardo said the eight Navy boats were not enough to address the crisis “because all our vessels are with dedicated and designated functions or missions to perform.”

Sharifa Pearlsia Dans, assistant interior secretary in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao and chair of the Crisis Management Crisis Coordinating Team, said a total of 432 people had been “processed” by social welfare personnel on March 5 to 9. Most of them arrived in wooden hulls from Tawau and Sandakan.

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