‘Plunder of WWII shipwrecks a tourism tragedy for Sabah’

masidi-manjunPETALING JAYA: The Sabah government is disappointed over the loss of tourism prospects after three World War II shipwrecks off Kota Belud were stripped of their archaeological treasures earlier this year.

The Daily Express quoted Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Masidi Manjun as saying that the damage inflicted on the sunken vessels by scavengers in Usukan Bay, off the coast of Kota Belud, was a lesson not to “mess” with the state’s tourism assets.

He told the Sabah State Assembly that the episode had also showed that the state’s tourism authorities lacked the needed enforcement power to protect such valuable sites.

“Quite bluntly, as far as for tourism purposes, the wrecks are gone. Their tourism value has gone,” he reportedly said in response to a question on the matter by Junz Wong (Parti Warisan Sabah-Likas) yesterday.

In the report, Masidi said a formal statement on the issue is expected to be released in a couple of weeks, following discussions with all relevant parties.

According to the New Straits Times, public Japanese records indicate that the three ships named Higane Maru, Hiyori Maru and Kokusei Maru were on their way to Manila in 1944 when they were hit by torpedoes from US submarine, USS Hammerhead.

A total of 83 crew members and 45 soldiers on board were killed, it said.

AFP reported in February that two of the three ships had almost completely disappeared from the seabed while the third had been turned into a heap of metal.

Their saleable materials were believed to have been stripped away and sold for profit.

The report also quoted Abdul Nasar Abdul Hadi, director of the Sabah Marine Department, as saying that UniversitI Malaysia Sabah (UMS) had been granted permission by the department and the Sabah Museum to carry out exploration and salvage works.

He said they had employed a Chinese-flagged vessel to do the work.

A stop-work order was subsequently issued by the department, but by then most of the artefacts were lost, with no public information on the inventory of items that were removed.

The AFP report also noted that naval warships and war graves are protected under international law which makes the desecration of such shipwrecks illegal.