By ZULKIFLI ABD RAHMAN - The StarA group of Malaysian journalists had the rare opportunity of visiting the Royal Malaysian Navy base at Layang-Layang Island and sharing the experience of military personnel stationed there.
LAYANG-LAYANG Island is situated in a remote area in the South China Sea, 343km northwest of Kota Kinabalu.
Known as Swallow Reef, it is an atoll about 0.1km in size and is located in the vicinity of the disputed Spratly Islands.
(Comprising more than 100 small islands or reefs, the Spratly Islands are claimed in whole or in part, and occupied by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam.)
There is also a Fisheries Department research base here.
Patrols by navy soldiers in CB90H attack vessels and larger, faster patrol boats are carried out around the island.
The RMN’s elite Paskal or naval Special Forces commandos also help to maintain security.
Several anti-ship and anti-aircraft guns are placed on several areas on the island and the RMAF personnel operate a Starburst air defence system to prevent low-level air attacks here.
The soldiers said the Starburst missile can target and hit hostile aircraft from 5km away.
The presence of soldiers from the Special Forces on the island demonstrates the sensitivity of the situation involving the overlapping claims on the many islands within the Spratlys archipelago.
Military personnel are needed to maintain Malaysia’s control of the island and also to protect the rich marine life surrounding it, said commanding officer of the Layang-Layang RMN Leftenan Khairul Nislah Ahmad.
His men maintain security on Layang-Layang and four other nearby islets or reefs - Ubi, Mantanani, Siput and Peninjau.
These islands are identified in international maps as Swallow Island (Layang-Layang), Ardasier Reef (Ubi), Mariveles Reef (Mantanani), Erica Reef (Siput) and Investigator Reef (Peninjau).
Lt Khairul said the islands were important strategic assets for the country and were believed to contain natural resources such as oil, phosphorous and natural gas. Meanwhile, the reefs are teeming with a beautiful and diverse marine life such as corals and many types of fish, which are great tourist attractions.
The commercial income from tuna fishing activities in Layang-Layang alone could amount to RM70mil annually, he revealed.
“We are also entrusted with the task of ensuring that only fishing vessels with permits are allowed into the area and fishermen they cannot catch legally-protected fish,” he said.
“Our troops also make patrols to prevent intrusions by foreign fishing boats or other types of vessels into our waters.
“Incidents such as illegal fishing, bombing of fish and theft of corals have been eliminated due to our presence in the area.”
Men stationed at the five islets monitor the movement of foreign ships and aircraft in the area, including military submarines that constantly ply the South China Sea, he added.
Lt Khairul said the armed forces personnel were normally stationed on the island on a three-month rotation.
The soldiers are transported to their respective stations on the five islets by navy boats from Layang-Layang once they arrive from Kota Kinabalu, where the Naval Area Base II (Mawila II) is located.
In the midst of a dinner held to welcome the journalists at the base, also known as Stesen Lima, heavily-armed Paskal commandos suddenly burst in, shouting that attackers had reached the base.
There were deafening rattles from automatic rifles and shots from anti-aircraft guns while thick smoke rose into the night sky.
In the confusion, two members of the media including my colleague, photographer Ong Soon Hin, were whisked away.
When the hullabaloo had settled, we were told that it was only a drama to demonstrate to us what would happen if the base was attacked.
RMN officer Lt Madya Zulhilmi Sahbudin, 25, who was stationed at Mantanani five months ago, said his duty, like that of his colleagues in Layang-Layang, was to ensure that the island was protected from intruders.
“For me there’s no other place like it in Malaysia. The waters around this island are blue and crystal-clear.
“It’s beautiful and many types of fish and corals can be seen,” he said.
Laskar Kanan Abdul Hail Hussin, 31, from Kota Kinabalu, agreed, saying that many Malaysians would jump at the opportunity to be stationed on a peaceful and remote island in the vast South China Sea.
But he confessed that boredom could creep in sometimes.
“I was happy to be selected to come here. The sight of the clear seawater and white beaches cannot be easily forgotten,” he said.
Due to security concerns, none of the soldiers on Layang-Layang would talk about movements of military ships in the area.
But every incident of close encounters with foreign ships and aircraft are logged, and I found out that soldiers sometimes saw military aircraft, ships, and submarines in the seas around the five islets.
However, no incident or confrontation has occurred.