How did foreigners get identification documents, NGO asks Sabah govt

Dayak permanent rep to the UN Andrew Atama Ambrose.

KOTA KINABALU: A local native group has urged the Sabah government to clear the air on whether it is involved in issuing local identification documents to foreigners, following news that 10 fishermen who were kidnapped earlier this month were in possession of such papers.

Borneo Dayak Forum (BDF) International spokesman Andrew Atama Ambrose said the organisation had been shocked by reports that the fishermen, said to be Filipinos kidnapped by cross-border criminals, had in their possession lepa-lepa letters.

A lepa-lepa is a signed letter from the local village chief or native court chief confirming that the holder is a sea gypsy. It gives holders permission to stay at sea.

“The question is on the power and role of the native court to issue such documents and its effect since the native court has the power to recognise and declare people as natives of Sabah,” Atama said.

“We are deeply concerned by the native court’s action to issue the lepa-lepa letters. It is highly unusual for a court, not least the native court, to be involved in giving out identification documents.”

Even more disturbing, said Atama, was the fact that the documents were issued to Filipino nationals as reported by a national newspaper.

He asked how the state government could be in the dark over the matter as those holding the position of village and native chiefs are mostly political appointees.

He also voiced concern over the possibility of power abuse by the native court and a “political effort” to legalise foreigners as Sabah natives given that such authority is vested in the native court and department.

Atama, who is the Dayak permanent representative to the United Nations, said BDF would seek clarification from Chief Minister Shafie Apdal on the lepa-lepa letters, the process involved and why the documents were issued to non-citizens.

“We are constantly vigilant about document issues because we keep hearing reports and allegations about a special project to issue documents and identification cards to foreigners in Sabah.

“We hope the authorities will investigate this matter and take appropriate action to prevent or stop another Project IC,” he said, referring to the project in the 1990s.