Two weeks ago Malaysian armed forces dispersed a group of armed Filipinos who arrived in Lahad Datu on February 9 to assert the ancestral claim of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III.
According to Malaysian authorities, the clashes have claimed the lives of 63 Sulu rebels. But Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the Sulu sultanate, insisted that only 26 of the 235 members of the royal army were killed. Malaysia’s security dragnet led to the detention of 408 people who were charged for numerous offences.
In a related development, eight Filipinos were charged in the High Court in Tawau for attempting to wage war against the state and could face the death penalty for violating Section 121 of the Penal Code.
The standoff may be over, but it has created a humanitarian crisis encompassing both Filipinos and Malaysians living in Sabah. Malaysia’s Federal Land Development Authority has 1,500 evacuees in Lahad Datu alone. The Philippine government reported that 1,500 undocumented Filipinos in Sabah arrived in the southern coastal towns of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi on March 13.
Meanwhile, some Sabah residents are complaining about the impact of the military operations in their villages. Andrew Ambrose, coordinator of the Sabah Coalition of Human Rights Organizations told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, “Militarization and the presence of security forces have created many roadblocks restricting the movements of the indigenous peoples in their foraging for food, harvesting, hunting and fishing.”
It is encouraging to see that Malaysia and the Philippines are cooperating to address these humanitarian concerns. However, it remains to be seen whether the two neighbors will sit down and tackle the Philippines’ dormant Sabah claim. The prospect of an international intervention or even the involvement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to resolve the dispute is also remote.
While both governments work toward a solution and all await the announcement of the final body count, it is probably worth reviewing how the conflict in Sabah was interpreted by different people. Perhaps this will help better understand the complexity of the Sabah issue and aid in recognizing the futility of reducing its significance to the public declarations of mainstream politicians.
It is a fact that Malaysia is paying an annual fee of U.S. $1,500 to the Sulu Sultanate. Malaysia says it is cession fee but Kiram asserts that it is rent. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has already advised the government to stop making the payment.
While Kiram is ridiculed as the illegitimate ruler of the sultanate by Malaysia and international media outlets, in the Philippines he is widely acknowledged as the rightful leader. In fact, Kiram was even included on the senatorial ticket of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2007.
When Kiram’s followers arrived and occupied Lahad Datu, they were seen as invaders, intruders, insurgents and interlopers. Interestingly, however, they were not immediately labeled thugs, criminals or terrorists. When Philippine President Benigno Aquino advised the private Filipino army to return to their homes in Mindanao, Kiram asserted that they were already home.
Malaysia started calling Kiram’s followers terrorists when its armed forces began dispersing the group on March 5. A statement released by the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs reads: “Malaysia considers this group as terrorists following their atrocities and brutalities committed in the killing of Malaysia’s security personnel, two in Lahad Datu and six in Semporna, Sabah.”
Meanwhile, in the Philippines the “terrorist” tag is not the only word that has elicited controversy. Philippine Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Dinky Soliman y Juliano was criticized when she called them balikbayan (returning to country), a term reserved for overseas Filipino workers. Instead of refugees, some lawyers prefer to call the evacuees Internally Displaced Persons to remain consistent with the position that Sabah is still part of Philippine territory.
The war over meanings will continue to intensify as long as the Sabah ownership issue is not settled. In the meantime, diplomats, historians, and politicians from all sides will continue to present evidence to bolster their contradictory positions to the public.
If Kiram’s followers intended to revive public interest and discussion about the Sulu Sultanate’s ancestral claim over Sabah, then we can say that they have succeeded—at least for now. Whether the debate generates anything beyond confusion is yet to be seen.
written for The Diplomat
Sabah and ASEAN
Many Filipinos want the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to intervene in the Sabah crisis, which began when armed followers of the self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III occupied parts of Lahad Datu on February 9 and vowed not to leave until Sabah is returned to the Sulu Sultanate.
After waiting three weeks for the members of the Royal Sulu Army to voluntarily surrender, the Malaysian military launched a full-scale attack against the group on March 5. The continuing operation has claimed the lives of at least 62 people, including Filipinos, locals and Malaysian police.
The standoff created a humanitarian crisis, which continues today as the Malaysian police search for the remaining armed followers of the Sulu Sultan in villages inhabited largely by Filipino immigrants. There are about 800,000 documented and undocumented Filipinos in Sabah. There are reports that Sabah residents with Filipino ancestry have been harassed by Malaysian authorities who are desperate to catch the leaders of the Royal Sulu Army. The Philippine government has recently decried the abuses and discrimination allegedly suffered by Filipinos in the area.
As more Filipinos leave Sabah daily to escape the violence, many have asked ASEAN to encourage all parties to avoid further bloodshed and rescue displaced Filipino families. Indeed, ASEAN could use its powers of persuasion to remind both the Philippine and Malaysian governments of their obligation to ensure the safety of the civilian populations in both Sabah and the southern Philippines. ASEAN has also been urged to hold talks with all stakeholders in the Sabah ownership dispute.
But it may be wise to temper expectations about ASEAN’s ability to intervene in the crisis. After all, this is the same body that proved ineffective in stopping the human rights violations committed against Rohingya Muslims across the region. It is also the same grouping that remained silent after Thai and Khmer soldiers exchanged gunfire along the Thai- Cambodian border.
If ASEAN can’t manage to issue a joint statement about the maritime dispute in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea involving its own member countries and China, how can we expect it to take a position on Sabah? Even today, Malaysia’s claim to Sabah is still disputed by the Philippine government?
Still, ASEAN could always surprise us by taking decisive action on the Sabah issue and leading international efforts to resolve the crisis. But if ASEAN refuses to be dragged into the row, perhaps it’s wise and even more appropriate to ask international institutions like the United Nations to step in.
In fact, some of the region’s disputed borders were largely resolved by the International Court of Justice, such as the Preah Vihear temple and its surroundings, which Thailand and Cambodia both claimed as their own; not to mention the competing claims of Singapore and Malaysia over the island Pedra Branca.
But this would take time and the humanitarian crisis in Sabah needs urgent attention and action. Human rights groups are concerned about the situation for Filipino migrants in Sabah, especially undocumented workers who might be wrongly labeled as members of the Royal Sulu Army.
The Malaysian government has barred Philippine media groups from covering the situation in Lahad Datu to prevent biased reporting. This has raised concerns that inadequate news coverage could lead to a cover up of serious abuses and human rights violations.
The UN and ASEAN must ensure that all state-enforced measures in Sabah conform to international human rights standards. Further, it is imperative that these international groups extend humanitarian assistance to affected individuals and families in both Sabah and the southernmost islands of the Philippines.
While it must ultimately be resolved, the best course of action for the moment may be to set aside the issue of Sabah ownership so that relief can be delivered to evacuees, refugees, deportees, and displaced families.
written for The Diplomat
Conspiracy Theories Surround Violence in Sabah
Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak smell conspiracy behind the decision by some 200 armed followers of Jamalul Kiram, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, to occupy parts of Lahad Datu in Sabah.
Although Sabah is part of the Malaysian Federation, the Sulu Sultanate in the southern Philippines has claimed the state as its own. There are an estimated 800,000 documented and undocumented Filipinos residing in Sabah.
Kiram’s armed followers arrived in Lahad Datu on February 9 and vowed not to leave until the sultanate’s claim is settled. After waiting three weeks for the private soldiers to surrender voluntarily, the Malaysian armed forces launched ground and air strikes yesterday. According to reports, as many as 8 Malaysians and 19 Filipinos have been killed in the fighting over the past week.
The death of Filipinos in Sabah may have forced Aquino to appear on national television to defend the Philippine government’s refusal to support the “hopeless cause” of Kiram’s followers. Aquino also hinted that his government is building a case against certain “persons of interest” who might have provoked the Sultan of Sulu to order his men to occupy Lahad Datu.
In a press conference on March 4, Aquino said: “We are aware that there are those who conspired to bring us to this situation – a situation that has no immediate solutions. Some of their identities are clear to us, while others continue to skulk in the shadows. The family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram could not possibly have settled on this course of action alone.”
Aquino added that the government is verifying reports suggesting the involvement of people connected to the administration of former President Gloria Arroyo. He warned, “To the people who are behind this, even now, I tell you: you will not succeed. All those who have wronged our country will be held accountable.”
Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is suspicious about the timing of the Sabah incursion, which took place just as Malaysian political parties are preparing for general elections due in June. Some opposition figures have been accused of instigating the crisis by encouraging Kiram to take drastic action in Sabah in exchange for autonomy once the opposition coalition grabs power this year.
The opposition rejected the charge and turned the tables back on Najib and the ruling party. The opposition accused Najib’s government of launching a full-scale attack against the so-called Royal Sulu Army to divert attention from the army’s failure to protect the country’s borders. They also accused the ruling coalition of exploiting the issue to win the support of Malaysian voters – especially in Sabah where the opposition is slowly making inroads.
The timing of the violence in Sabah – during election season in both Malaysia and the Philippines – has created an atmosphere in which everything that political actors involved in the drama say or do can be reduced to an election stunt.
In normal circumstances, conspiracy theories can be readily dismissed. The picture is blurred, however, when the sources of such theories are no less than the president and prime minister of two neighboring countries.
There may well be conspirators and traitors in the two countries and arrests might soon take place. But the Sabah dilemma won’t easily go away. Conspiracy or not, the lesson is that it’s no longer acceptable for Malaysian and Filipino politicians to deliberately avoid tackling the issue of Sabah ownership.
Perhaps the time has come to settle this debate once and for all. The escalating violence in Lahad Datu should embolden the leaders of both countries to work out a lasting solution to this persistent problem.
Should they fail to do so, there appears to be no lack of those who would continue to ignite the dispute in Sabah to advance their own interests.
written for The Diplomat