The Sabah game

Written March 7, 2013

In any levels of politics, nothing happens by accident. A keen and analytical eye could look at the timeline of the events that have occurred prior to the crisis in Sabah and one can conclude that the emergence of the conflict isn’t alone driven by the initiative of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to reclaim their ancestral territory through his supporters, or what they call themselves the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. It is true that we cannot discount the fact that a man of the sultan’s age is a risk-taker because he believes he’s got nothing to lose, thus, might act in his own will. This argument alone could have supported the sultan’s actions that resulted to the current conflict in Sabah. However, the timeline reveals what is not being said here.

First of all, the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement narrative of the conflict is clear. The Sabah incident happened just three months after the signing of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement. The sultan, feeling left out because he claimed he was not consulted in the agreement and that there are no provisions in the agreement that mention Sabah, wanted to make his presence felt by sending his army to the territory and take matters in his own hands. The action also came at a time when the peace process is still in its fragile, early phase and the relationship between the Philippines and Malaysia is in a relative high. Secondly, not to undermine his capabilities but the 74-year-old ailing sultan couldn’t have planned it all especially if you consider his limitations and constraints. Thus, the possibilities of the existence of individuals or entities who may have persuaded the sultan to take such actions and who continues to support his cause whether it is in the form of financial backing or moral support is very likely. It important to understand who these potential individuals or groups are and where they are coming from to get a better grasp of the ramifications and consequences that may transpire in the crisis and predict the possible actions the main stakeholders might undertake in pushing their stands in the crisis.

Kiram and the previous administration

During a press conference on March 4, President Aquino hinted of a possible connivance between the sultan and people from the previous administration led by former president Gloria Arroyo in accomplishing what has been done in Sabah. Of course, the relationship between the government and the previous administration has always been tumultuous and has been marred with controversies, giving the government a motivation to suspect them for conspiring with the sultan. Arroyo has always been the target of Aquino’s anti-corruption campaign and he was even successful in having the former convicted and arrested for electoral sabotage in 2011. This relatively successful drive by the current president to eliminate corruption in the country by having corrupt officials convicted for their crimes has gained international attention, improving business confidence and investors’ climate and pushing international economists to tag the Philippines as the next Asian economic tiger. Aquino received praise, however, at the expense of the previous administration. Hence, motives of the former administration to get even by sabotaging the current administration are glaring in the background of this issue.

Furthermore, there’s another reason to suspect the alliance between Kiram and the former administration. It can be recalled that in 2007, Kiram unsuccessfully ran for a senatorial seat in the government under the banner of Together Everybody Achieves More (TEAM) Unity, the umbrella coalition backed by the Arroyo administration. The coalition intended to take several seats in the Senate to protect the Gloria Arroyo from impeachment attempts during that time. This relationship of the Kiram with these people may have been preserved and one can only guess the kind of support and encouragement they are giving the sultan for his assertions in Sabah.

The tremendous amount of frustration towards the handling of the Aquino administration of the Sabah is issue is overwhelming. Critical comments on Aquino in social media have somewhat chipped the perception of the Filipinos toward the administration. This is aggravated by the fact that several Filipinos Muslims have already died in Sabah and the failure of the government to stop Malaysia and intervene in the ongoing operations of the Malaysian security forces to wipe out the Filipinos from the disputed territory. The stress and pressure from the Filipinos continue to press Aquino’s back against the wall and knowing the president’s history in handling these kinds of dire situations, we would expect him to use the former administration as a scapegoat to respond to his criticisms. It is then anticipated that a thoroughgoing investigation which involves the former administration will be made by the government, if not yet.

But for as long as the Aquino doesn’t have concrete and solid evidences yet to drag the former president in this scandal, expect him to try not to drop names or speak of theoretical hypothesis to avoid criticisms of scapegoating. Nevertheless, one cannot also blame the president for pointing out the possibility of connivance due to the abovementioned motives.

Kiram and the MNLF

Misuari’s show of support for Sultan Kiram is not at all surprising. He confirmed that the freedom fighters from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which he founded in the late 60s, are involved and a part of the militia sent by Kiram in Sabah. However, he also said that the MNLF members who joined the royal army went to Sabah without his knowledge and has not ordered anyone to join them. He also denied that he provides financial support to the sultan and its army. Nevertheless, MNLF fighters are supporters of the sultan, thus, the alliance between them and the MNLF.

Misuari’s words, however, have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The MNLF sees him as their leader and they wouldn’t go to Sabah without his prior approval. The MNLF also has publicly expressed their opposition of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement and seeing the plan being gradually implemented, it is impossible for MNLF, a group with a known history of violence, to remain silent and not give it a fight to advance their secessionist aspirations. Misuari may have also seen Sabah as an opportunity to reassert their significance to Malaysia and to extract money from the Malaysian government out of an agreement in case Malaysia will not be able to contain the violence. This is why he volunteered to mediate between Malaysia and the Sultan of Sulu (which is weird because he is already calling Malaysian PM Razik as the enemy) and demand money as quid pro quo.

However, Misuari is forgetting the fact that Malaysia’s armed forces is definitely much stronger than that of the Philippines and it is doubtful for Malaysia to just allow Kiram’s followers to wreak havoc wherever they go. Malaysia will definitely retaliate under the anti-terrorists banner (Malaysia has already branded Kiram’s fighters as terrorists). Malaysia may also stop the funding of the MNLF and block its arms supply and support from overseas. One curious fact though is that Misuari’s MNLF was trained and funded by the Malaysian government to wreak havoc in the Philippines for decades. This is why some analysts are branding the MNLF as Malaysia’s karma and Frankenstein monster.

It is also possible that Misuari and the MNLF is using the sultan as a front so if something goes wrong, it will all be the fault of Kiram.

One alarming statement of Misuari is his threat and promise of total chaos in the Philippines if the government proceeds to arrest the followers of Sultan Kiram. His statement implies that if the sultan and his followers were arrested for going against Philippine law, he would again exert his force and rise up against the administration, most probably through acts of terrorism and spreading violence again all over the country. As previously mentioned, MNLF has a history of spreading terror and violence.

Government pressed against the wall

The government has to be always careful when dealing with Misuari. Threats are not mere words because some people put their money where their mouths are, especially those persons who have records of such incidents. One thing that the government has to watch over is what happens if Kiram’s supporters and the MNLF are defeated in Sabah. For sure, they will direct their anger towards the Philippine government instead (because they know we’re a weaker force) and this could start another series of deadly terrorist activities in the country at a time when peace is crucial for the Philippine economy.

Conversely, it is interesting to know what will happen in case Kiram’s followers and the MNLF are successful in Sabah. Based on what I can see, Aquino’s hands are tied right now. If he shows blatant public support for Malaysia, he will not only earn criticisms among Filipino Muslism; he’s bound to also get it from all Filipinos who are already frustrated about his mismanaging of the issue if he does such thing. The violence in Sabah might also reach the Philippine shores through Filipino Muslims in the south out of the government’s inaction in Sabah. On the other hand, Aquino cannot also afford to show support for the Filipinos in Sabah whom Malaysia deemed as terrorists because he does not want to strain Philippine-Malaysian ties and put the peace agreement in jeopardy. However, not supporting Malaysia in the Sabah conflict shouldn’t risk the Bangsamoro peace agreement because first and foremost, Malaysia merely acted as a mediator; unless there are under the table arrangements amongst the Philippines, Malaysia and the MILF when the agreement was forged.

If the Sabah crisis continues to escalate and hurt the relations of the two countries, there’s a great chance that the OFWs in Malaysia will be affected. Malaysia might consider deportation but this will definitely further add insult to the injury. The thought itself already invites hatred between Filipinos and Malaysians, how much more if it materializes.

The best action for the government right now is to avoid making crass remarks that would further infuriate any of the parties involved and start asking for international intervention right now, especially from the United Nations (never mind the United States and the United Kingdom, they are busy settling their financial woes) because first of all, human rights have already been violated by both sides in the conflict and further violence can only result to losses because war is a lose-lose situation. Efforts should all be directed towards ending the violence first. All actors should put they claims aside, stop killing each other and once everyone has settled and calmed down, that’s the time when they should settle their differences. Confidence-building measures among parties must be conducted as well prior to negotiations because as we know, no agreement will be formed if the parties involved do not trust each other.

Furthermore, Malaysia should at least recognize the sultan’s ownership of Sabah first even if they are already doing that by paying the sultan an annual rental fee. This will be the starting point of peaceful negotiations. The Philippine government should help by studying thoroughly the claims of the Sultan, although this should have already been done years and years before. Proper venues should also be utilized in settling the dispute such as the International Court of Justice and the United Nations. The ASEAN may also be of help but I doubt it can settle the territorial dispute because it doesn’t even have a mechanism to resolve trade disputes within the region.

Finally, the current crisis in Sabah should test the integrity of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement. The government and the MILF should continue to implement the framework until it is fully realized. However, if peace talks with Malaysia, the Sultanate of Sulu and the Philippines ensue, all negotiations and agreements that they will be discussing are bound to have an effect or consequences to the Bangsamoro framework, and, therefore, might need subsequent updates. Nonetheless, what’s of prime importance right now is to get Malaysia and the followers of the sultan to stop fighting and exterminate the flames of war in the disputed territory. The ideal scenario is for Malaysia to agree on peaceful negotiations with Sultan Kiram and the Philippines because a realist’s peace (or a peace from war) is fragile and ephemeral.

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