Saturday, March 9, 2013

Malaysia Getting a Dose of Its Own Medicine in the Sabah Conflict

A 19th century flag of the Sultanate of Sulu
The failure of the Philippine government to successfully take the territory of Sabah in Malaysia North Borneo for itself, and the relegation of the issue to the back burner to foster diplomatic and economic relation with Malaysia made the heirs to the Sultan of Sulu take the matters into their own hands over the ownership issue of the resource-rich place.                                                                                                                  

Former Philippine President Diosdado Macapagal’s official reminders to Great Britain that Sabah belonged to the Sultan of Sulu and by extension to the Philippine government  just fell on deaf ears when that country included Sabah in the Malaysian Federation in 1963. President Ferdinand Marcos who succeeded Macapagal made a drastic move to take Sabah by secretly training Tausug recruits in a secluded island in Corregidor to infiltrate the disputed territory. The plan failed when the recruits knew of their mission and mutinied. To cover the plot, their military trainers gunned them down. However, one recruit was able to escape by floating and swimming in Manila Bay. The privilege speech of Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr in the senate revealed the incident which was termed “The Jabidah Massacre”. The report so incensed the Filipino Muslims that it sparked their rebellion in the 70’s.
One of the early sultans of Sulu (second from right, sitting)

(Photo from Wikipedia)
The armed conflict that followed came with a big cost to the Philippine government.  The fighting lasted almost two decades and claimed more than 100,000 lives of soldiers, Moro rebels and Christian and Muslim civilians. It also displaced millions of people in Mindanao and worsened the incidence of poverty in the already economically depressed affected areas.

It is believed that Malaysia added fuel to the fire of the conflict in Mindanao. Sabah Malaysia was used as a safe refuge of Filipino rebels taking a respite from the fighting. It was also used as a training ground for Filipino Muslim rebels and a point where arms and ammunition were smuggled to different landing areas in southern Philippines.

The escape of some Filipino Muslims from the conflict in the 70’s have increased the number of Sulu immigrants to Sabah which is just an hour of boat ride from the nearest islands of Tawi-tawi in Mindanao. Moreover, the Sabah government’s process of aggressive Islamization deliberately encouraged the immigration of Filipino, Indonesian and even Pakistani Muslims into Sabah. From 37.9% of Muslims in 1960, Sabah’s Muslims are now 65.4% of the total population.

The recent conflict in Sabah started when the Sulu Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu landed in Lahad Datu, Sabah on February 12, 2013 purportedly to return to the land that belongs to them. They were given ultimatums by the Malaysian government to leave the area to prevent violence and bloodshed. The Philippine government too pleaded to Sultan Jamalul Kiram to order his men to unconditionally return to the Philippines.

When a peaceful means to resolve the standoff failed, the Malaysian troops assaulted the Sulu Royal Army’s position resulting to casualties on both sides with the Sulu Royal army suffering the heavier losses. Later, fighter jets and artilleries were used to pound the Sulu Royal Army’s position. Ground troops also surrounded the militants. The death toll now is 61 including eight from the side of the Malaysians.

The United Nations ordered a cessation of hostilities. Sultan Kiram then took the opportunity to declare a unilateral ceasefire to relieve pressure on his beleaguered troops. Malaysia however, refused to accept a truce unless Kiram’s army unconditionally surrenders to the Malaysians.

Despite the continuous bombardments from the Malaysians, the Kirams say that their army’s command and control group is still safe and sound. And that most of their fighters know the terrain of the place like the palm of their hands and that they are protected and provided refuge by the Tausugs who are residents of the area. It still remains to be seen whether the Malaysian authorities can annihilate the militants or the later will be able to mount protracted guerrilla warfare against the Malaysian forces and its government.