On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Are hidden hands at work?

But this time, the rooms have all been taken up by the security personnel who are using the hostel as an operation centre.

The hostel is about 15km from Kampung Tanduo, the scene of fighting between the Sulu intruders and our security forces.

When fighter jets dropped bombs last Tuesday in an all-out assault to finish off the gunmen holed up in the village, the explosions were loud enough to be heard from the hostel.

Of the 40 rooms, only eight are set aside for the media, although there are about 100 reporters and cameramen from the print and TV stations at the scene.

Over the last 10 days, at least seven pressmen have had to share a room, giving themselves a maximum of 10 minutes to use the washroom every morning.

Others travel daily between Lahad Datu and the hostel, which is also used as a media centre, for daily briefings.

But travelling between Lahad Datu and the hostel carries a risk. There are no street lights on the trunk road and if one does not have a vehicle, there is no taxi driver willing to ferry anyone there. The fighting has frightened off most taxi drivers from taking the 140km journey.

The price to hire a sedan car has shot up from the previous RM130 to RM300, while hiring a four-wheel drive vehicle will set you back RM500 instead of the usual RM350.

Both sides of the road are lined with oil palm plantations and heavy undergrowth. With talk that some intruders might have escaped from the dragnet, there are fears that some could be hiding in the jungle foliage.

Security is so tight that reporters travelling from the Felda town of Cendarawasih, some 30km away, are stopped from entering the media centre.

The media people have resorted to doing homestays with the Felda settlers at Cenderawasih to be as near to the action as possible but they are locked out each time there is an operation at Kampung Tanduo.

The pressmen are working under tight conditions as they battle to meet their deadlines while their Kuala Lumpur-based editors, many of whom are ignorant and have never set foot on Sabah, bark orders over the phone.

Taking a dig at their bosses seems to have become a way out for them to release their tension as every media group fights one another for exclusives. Separating facts from rumours is their biggest challenge.

From the rumour-mongering by the locals to purported breaking news from the blogs and tweets, the press has had to sieve through the mass of information.

On one occasion, a family member of the self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III called a press conference in Manila to show a picture of the dead bodies of security men piled up on a vehicle, claiming they were Malaysians at Tanduo. It was actually an old picture taken in Thailand.

Then there were the occasional claims of more intruders landing on our shores, which were certainly aimed at frightening Malaysians living in the small towns here. The result is often panic and the shutters are pulled down immediately.

Jamalul has found himself in the media glare but there are up to 60 Filipinos who have also declared themselves Sultans.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) founder Nur Misuari has been blamed for providing support to the gunmen despite his denial that he played any role in the intrusion. Jamalul, on his own, has no soldiers. Misuari is known for his unhappiness over the peace road map between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Manila brokered by Kuala Lumpur.

The psychological warfare has become more complicated, if not more farcical, with the head of the intruders, the so-called Raja Muda Azzimuddie Kiram, giving telephone interviews to the press from both KL and Manila. His fate has remained unknown since the bombing.

But there are still lingering questions that have continued to dominate the conversation among pressmen from both sides, the main one being “Why now?”

Jamalul, 74, is passing himself off as royalty but the fact is he is just another politician. He contested for senator as part of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo’s Team Unity in the 2007 polls but lost badly.

In the elections, Jamalul finished 26th out of 37 candidates. He garnered 2.49 million votes, or 8.4% of the votes cast for all senators.

Manila believes the intrusion into Sabah was a plan to exert pressure on President Benigno Aquino III by forces close to Arroyo ahead of the republic’s mid-term elections in May. Control of the bicameral legislature ahead of the 2016 presidential polls is crucial.

Arroyo is under house arrest for electoral sabotage and moves are being made to pressure Aquino to grant her a presidential pardon. A total of 18,022 national and local posts, including 12 senatorships, will be decided in the May elections. The Philippine Senate has 24 members who serve a six-year term and Jamalul is expected to run again.

There is also the Malaysian general election set to be called in weeks – and most media and political analysts believe that there are also hidden Malaysian hands at work to embarrass the Prime Minister ahead of the polls, given the importance of Sabah.

The intrusion ahead of the Philippine and Malaysian polls, and the close relationships of the personalities suspected in the link between both countries, have fuelled more speculation as to why it has taken place now.