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Wednesday, February 22, 2017
- With little sign of a meaningful diplomatic breakthrough on the South China Sea horizons, coupled with a dangerous escalation between Vietnam and China in the disputed waters, the Philippines has faced an added crisis over the Malaysian state of Sabah.
The crisis was prompted when (Feb. 14) between 80-100 armed supporters of the descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu, led by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, launched a ragtag occupation of a remote area of the Malaysian state, precipitating a muscular response from the Malaysian security forces.
Despite incessant efforts by the Philippine government to prevent a violent confrontation, notably dispatching a humanitarian fleet to fetch children and women among the armed men, Malaysia and Kiram’s so-called Royal Security Forces (RSF) ended up fighting a protracted and bloody guerilla war, re-igniting a centuries-old tug-of-war between the Philippines and Malaysia over oil-rich Sabah.
Meanwhile, the conflict led to the potential displacement of up to 800,000 Filipinos residing in Sabah, with dozens of Filipinos accusing Malaysian authorities of committing human rights violations amid large-scale mopping-up operations against Kiram’s suspected followers.
As the crisis intensified, more supporters – straddling porous maritime borders and infiltrating the naval blockade by Filipino-Malaysian forces – of Sulu Sultanate entered the theatre of war. Within two months, confrontations led to the death of at least 68 members of the RSF and the arrest of 126 others, while up to 6,000 Filipinos residing in Sabah were reportedly displaced by the crisis.
In many ways, some analysts and commentators have characterised the whole fiasco as a classic case of intelligence failure, with both Manila and Kuala Lumpur failing to anticipate a bilateral crisis resulting from unilateral actions by a number of non-state actors. It was also, they claim, an example of crisis-management disaster, with both governments failing to effectively prevent an armed confrontation in absence of a close bilateral security-intelligence coordination and effective deployment of peaceful, diplomatic means.
All the while, the Philippines has been facing a dangerous escalation in the South China Sea in recent months, with Beijing (a) rejecting Manila’s call for an international arbitration of maritime disputes and (b) taking an unprecedented decision to deploy three “surveillance ships” and a naval helicopter to consolidate its claims over disputed features.
With a cloud of mystery shrouding the exact circumstances leading to the crisis, people have resorted to a range of conspiracy theories amid sensitive elections in Philippines, where the Aquino administration is facing a de facto referendum in a by-elections, and Malaysia, where the ruling coalition is facing a historical parliamentary battle against an emboldened opposition. Some are accusing the Aquino administration of orchestrating the Sabah crisis to score domestic political points, while others have pointed their finger at the Malaysian opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.
The Malaysian government, meanwhile, has engaged in an effective public relations campaign, rousing nationalist sentiments and public sympathy for the government under Prime Minister Najib Razak, while an increasing number of Filipinos have renewed their calls for a more assertive stance by the Aquino administration on the Sabah issue, with some citizens petitioning the Supreme Court to instruct the executive to bring Philippines’ claims to international courts.
Responding to the popular pulse, the Aquino administration has promised to convene a panel of experts and government officials to review the possibility of subjecting the Sabah claim to international arbitration.
Prior to the independence of Malaysia and the Philippines, the Sultanate of Sulu laid claim to North Borneo, a gift from the Bruneian royalty, which it leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878 in exchange for an annual payment of 5,000 Malayan dollars then, which was increased by another 300 Malayan dollars 1903 onwards.
At the onset of the emergence of the Malaysian Federation, after the withdrawal of British forces, the Sulu Sultanate ceded its North Borneo claim to the Philippine government in 1962. The following year, however, Sabah was incorporated into the Malaysian federation, provoking a diplomatic crisis between Manila and its new Southeast Asian neighbour.
The Marcos regime in the Philippines pushed the envelope by increasingly agitating against the newly formed Malaysian state, threatening to take back Sabah by force, which, in turn, prompted Kuala Lumpur to seek U.S. assistance to dissuade Manila against any armed action, according to newly-released diplomatic cables.
Initially, Marcos solicited the support of Filipino Muslims, the so-called ‘Moros’, to reclaim Sabah. But a series of events, notably the Jabbidah Massacre, escalated into an internal war between the Philippine government and an all-out insurgency in the South, led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under charismatic academic-turned-warrior Nur Misuari.
Reportedly, what ensued was a proxy war, whereby the Malaysian government supported the insurgency to distract the Philippine government, which eventually decided to prioritise its strategic ties with its western neighbour and drop the pursuit of Sabah in order to focus on the domestic crisis.
No wonder, many have accused the Aquino administration of allegedly sidelining the country’s claim to Sabah in order to facilitate the Malaysian-brokered framework peace agreement with the country’s main insurgency group and MNLF-offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in 2012.
For some, Kiram’s actions were a desperate attempt to highlight an otherwise forgotten territorial dispute, since the Sulu Sultan, prior to the crisis, is said to have repeatedly sought Manila’s assurances on upholding the Sabah claim in principle and practice. Meanwhile, the MNLF, with Misuari supporting Kiram’s stance on Sabah, has accused the Philippine government of striking new deals with the MILF, without fully honouring its earlier agreements with the group.
Against such a stormy backdrop, Malaysia imposed restrictions on barter deals with Filipino traders, while Manila and the MILF failed to reach a deal on key aspects of the framework agreement in the latest series of negotiations, underscoring the depth and range of challenges faced by the Aquino administration.
In effect, Manila has been placed in a precarious strategic position, whereby it is simultaneously facing two diplomatic crises to its west (Malaysia) and north (China), while desperately seeking to rein in domestic insurgency, especially in the southern island of Mindanao.