The Curious Case of North Borneo

The ongoing conflict in Sabah is the result of an unresolved territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over Sabah known as North Borneo prior to the formation of the federation of Malaysia in 1963. The Philippines, via the Sultanate of Sulu which is now a part of the country, claims the territory on the basis that Sabah was only rented to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, with the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu never ceded or relinquished. In fact, Malaysia is still paying the Sultan of Sulu annually for their stay in Sabah. Malaysia, on the other hand, believes that the agreement in 1878 was a cession deal, and that it supposes that the Sabahans had exercised their right to self-determination when they voted to be a part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.

Believing that the Philippines is more capable in asserting their claims and rights over Sabah, the Sulu Sultanate, having been reduced to merely a symbolic figure, ceded their rights to the Philippine Government. Several events have transpired since then including a failed plan to destabilize North Borneo (Sabah) made by then Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos. Malaysia responded by helping to establish the Moro National Liberation Front, one of the Muslim separatist groups in Mindanao. Malaysia trained the first batch of MNLF commanders to fight against the government of the Philippines as a secessionist group. For decades, it is a common knowledge that Malaysia is the provider of money and weapons of the MNLF and, later, of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), who in 1987 refused to accept the Philippine government’s offer of semi-autonomy.

President Marcos stopped pursuing Philippines’ claims to Sabah. However, no steps were taken to legitimize this dropping of the claims. Nonetheless, the administrations that succeeded Marcos did not attempt to revive the country’s claim over Sabah as well, leaving it dormant and unresolved until the recent standoff incident.

The 2013 Sabah Standoff

From what seemed as a minor standoff between Malaysia and a group of Filipinos who identify themselves the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo has escalated into a full-blown civil conflict in Lahad Datu, a district located to the east of the disputed territory of Sabah. The man allegedly behind the incident is 74-year-old Jamalul Kiram III, the Sultan of Sulu, who claims to reign over Sulu and Northern Borneo (Sabah).

A group of 235 Filipinos who are followers of the Sultan landed by boat in Sabah last month, pressing the dormant, historic claim over the territory. On March 1, an armed confrontation between the Malaysian police and the sultanate’s forces transpired in Lahad Datu, killing 10 members of the royal army with four more injuries as a result. Two casualties were also reported from the Malaysian side. The owner of the house where the army had stayed was also killed during the incident.

At around 6:30 am on March 3, a small group of armed men claiming to be from the Sultanate of Sulu ambushed the Malaysian police in a surveillance operation on a village off the coast of Semporna, Sabah. Four members of the Malaysian security force died in the combat. Reports came out later that a total number of 11 people were killed in Semporna, six police officers and seven attackers.

On March 5, an all-out assault was carried out by the Malaysian Armed Forces against the royal forces around the village of Tanduo. Malaysian planes bombarded Sabah while ground troops attacked members of the royal army. The number of casualties hasn’t been confirmed yet as of this writing.

As of March 5, the strife between Malaysia and the followers of the Sulu Sultan has claimed the lives of 31, 22 of which are from the Filipino side and the remaining coming from the Malaysian police.

Kiram’s Motives and Conspiracy Theories

The latest claim of the Kiram family is to increase the annual payment of Malaysia on their stay in Sabah. Malaysia has been paying the sultan a very small annual amount of 5,000 Malaysian ringgit or Php77,442.36 or US$1,500 for Sabah’s land area of 73,711 square kilometres. One must also take note that resource-rich Sabah constitutes to a significant portion of the Malaysian economy, which makes it even harder for claimants to abandon it.

However, the meagreness of the annual rent pay doesn’t account to the whole story. Historically, Sabah has always been an integral part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, and therefore, is an important part of the Tausug’s (main ethnic group of the sultanate) identity and their way of life. One cannot disregard the sentiments of the Sabahans though, who have built their lives in Sabah for generations.

Sultan Kiram may have also felt betrayed and neglected with the signing of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a peace deal brokered by Malaysia that doesn’t say anything about the retrieval of Sabah as a part of the proposed Bangsamoro entity. One can only surmise that the possibility of Sabah being used as a quid pro quo for Malaysia’s help in mediating between the government and the MILF may have crossed the sultan’s mind and therefore put the initiative to reclaim the territory in his own hands.

President Aquino, on the other hand, said that they are currently investigating on a conspiracy between the Kirams and some people from the previous government that lead to the Sabah standoff. Malaysia has its own conspiracy theory as well. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razik accused opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim of inviting the Royal Army of Sulu to Sabah.

Assessment and Analysis

While it is important to understand the motives of the primary actors in the strife in Sabah – Sultanate of Sulu, Malaysia and the Philippines – one is a fool to disregard the external forces that can influence that outcome of the ongoing fighting in the said territory.

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who forged a peace deal with the Philippine government last year refused to issue any policy statement on the crisis in Sabah and would like to maintain a hands-off posture because the Sabah contention is a sensitive issue and it is not even being discussed in the peace talks between them and the government. When asked about what they can do to help de-escalate the conflict for a peaceful resolution, the MILF gave no comment but added that they are confident that the situation will be resolved peacefully and without any further bloodshed. However, they questioned why the Sulu sultan is making noise only now when they have been silent for more than 40 years.

On the other hand, MNLF leader Nur Misuari has been very vocal about his expression of support and sympathy for the Sulu Sultan. This pledge does not only show MNLF’s sentiments about it being ignored in the framework agreement between the government and the MILF, it also indicates the group’s continuing separatist aspiration for an independent Muslim state and there is no perfect time to implement the master plan but now when the framework agreement is still on its initial phase and both the Philippines and Malaysia are in vulnerable position due to their upcoming elections. Furthermore, it is of MNLF’s interest to hurt and threaten Malaysia’s own interests in the Philippines, hence, their support for the royal army insurgents in Sabah.

The presence of the Abu Sayyaf in Mindanao shouldn’t also be overlooked. Knowing that the government’s focus has been turned from Mindanao and into Sabah, the notorious secessionist group might just take advantage of the current situation and commence a terror campaign not only in Sabah but also within the Philippine territory. It is important to take note that the group is in contact with several lawless elements such as bandits and bombers, and they might just exploit the current conditions to pursue their separatist ambitions. Therefore, foreign agencies such as the USAID, AUSAID and foreign embassies should beef up their security by keeping in touch with security authorities in their areas and maintaining alertness for threats and risks in order to avoid any unfortunate events. Journalists who are covering the Sabah story should also take proper security measures to prevent any kinds of untoward incidents. Lawless elements are expected to be more active as local and military police attention will be more concentrated on Sabah.

Sympathy attacks should also be expected in Mindanao not only because of Malaysia’s military actions against Muslims in Sabah but also due to the mishandling of the government of the whole situation.

The military intervention of Malaysia in the prolonged crisis in Sabah may lead to anti-Malaysian sentiments within the Philippines. Anti-Malaysian activities may be targeted against Malaysian nationals, tourists and companies with operations in the country. Likewise, the stand-off in Sabah may also spur anti-Filipino acts in Malaysia such as the deportation of illegal Filipino immigrants in the neighboring country. Malaysians may also direct their ire on Filipinos who are legally working and staying in Malaysia due to their nationalist sentiments. Given the large number of Filipinos in Malaysia especially in Sabah and the maltreatment that they have experienced on the hand of the Malaysians even prior to the stand-off, an ethnic conflict shouldn’t be delisted from all the other possibilities.

Another thing to take into consideration is the local politicians who would take advantage of the current situation, particularly due to the upcoming May elections. Politicians who are not in favor of the actions of the Sultan Kiram will definitely try to get the limelight by giving out statements against the Sulu Sultan. It is expected from the sultan to lash back at his haters because for him, he’s the sultan and they are just local politicians who are trying to get a seat in the government.

Finally, locals and foreigners should also be wary of the situation especially those who are in areas and provinces with significant number of Sultanate supporters.

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