In January, three Japanese WW2 shipwrecks lying off Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, were reported to have been extensively stripped for metal salvaging. Coming after similar occurrences on military shipwrecks in the Java and South China Sea, the divers’ community and the fishermen (who benefit from the wrecks, which act as artificial reefs) once again showed outrage. The international press reported on it.

The Sabah incident showed puzzling features, as Government authorization seems to have been given for “archaeological research” by Universiti Malaysia Sabah. A China-based salvage company was hired by a Malaysian company to undertake the work. At a Q&A session, the Sabah State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister said that ” “missteps” had led to this fiasco and the state would draw up strict guidelines and policies to ensure the remaining 27 WWII wrecks in Sabah waters are preserved for posterity” and it was announced that the “Sabah State authorities will decide in a report if those involved in the salvaging of three World War II shipwrecks in Sabah’s northern waters have broken any law”, reported The Star (16 and 21 Feb. 2017).

The reports of similar plundering of other Australian, British, Dutch and American and Japanese WW2 warships off Indonesia in recent times, and of the Japanese shipwrecks off Santubong, Sarawak (see our  Aug.-Sept.-Oct. 2016 Misc. Heritage News bulletin) suggest that certain parties are increasingly aware of the money that can be made from salvaging metal from sunken military ships – including when they are de facto war graves and when it requires costly mobilisation of large barges, cranes and dredging equipment- in a context of loose national and international regulations and where physical protection by Governments agencies is difficult to achieve and obviously not of highest priority.

We may be witnessing the emergence of organised transnational set-ups to loot the South East Asia military shipwrecks for metal, most of the time illegally, i.e. criminally.

We join the call for more decisive Governments action and inter-government cooperation on regulation and enforcement in this area.

Readers’ comments are welcome (scroll down to the “Comment” box)

Rice Bowl Wreck [Pix from The Star article, 16 Feb. 2016]

[Pix from The Star article, 16 Feb. 2016]

Sources :

Salvage work on WW2 shipwrecks underway, draws ire from Sabah divers, fishermen” – New Straits Times, 25 Jan. 2017

Post by Irsyad Ismail on SabahBah Facebook, 25 Jan. 2017

Images reveal three more Japanese WWII shipwrecks torn apart for scrap” – The Guardian online, 9 Feb. 2017

WWII shipwrecks off Malaysia broken for scrap: Divers” – The Sun Daily, 14 Feb. 2017 (from AFP)

Questions left unanswered in Sabah WWII wreck ‘tell-all’ session“- The Star online, 16 Feb. 2017

Mainly ceramic pieces found in WWII wrecks” – The Star online, 18 Feb. 2017

Salvage work report to be finalised within a month” – The Star online, 21 Feb. 2017

Sabah to probe whether UMS salvage work broke law” – New Straits Times, 24 Feb. 2017

Mystery over Sabah shipwrecks deepens” – Berita, 24 Feb. 2017

and, on previous cases: Royal Navy WW2 wrecks ‘disappear’ after being destroyed by scrap metal scavengersThe Telegraph, 16 Nov. 2016.