COMMENTARY: Lifeline hangs in the balance

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It is indeed timely that the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has issued a call for a ceasefire and dialogue to end the violence.  Sultan Jamalul III has followed the call of the UN Secretary General and has also called for a ceasefire. In Jolo, Sultan Muedzul-Lail Kiram, the son of the late Sultan Mahakuttah Kiram finally spoke the other day, pleading for an end to the fighting in an interview by GMA7’s Kara David.  (However, in Malaysia, there was no news as of March 7 on the UN’s call for ceasefire.)

Perhaps now the experienced diplomats will lead the dialogue among the contending parties: the Kirams, the Philippine Government and the Malaysian Government.  If SecGen Ban Ki Moon’s lifeline is seized, a raft will be afloat in the troubled waters.  Will the raft float? Or capsize?  That depends on the various interest groups.

Over two weeks ago, I wrote about the situation in Lahad Datu (“Sabah Standoff”, Feb 21) and warned about the possible spiraling of the impasse into violence.  I said, “Left unresolved, the standoff in Sabah can escalate into an international incident that could create tension between Malaysia and the Philippines. Worse, there may be vested interests that will fuel an escalation into conflict.”  And here we are, in the midst of an international incident that has seized the attention of the UN.

To complicate matters, Malaysian politics, with their elections scheduled in June, is in the driver’s seat. The Malaysian opposition led by Datuk Anwar Ibrahim had been pounding away at the ruling party, the Barisan Nasional (BN)/United Malays National Organization (UMNO), led by Prime Minister Najib Razak for the government’s inability to prevent the incursion into Sabah of over a hundred Filipino followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and to protect Malaysian territory.

Meanwhile, forced to show strength, the Malaysian government responded by first isolating the Filipinos under Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, crown prince and brother of Sultan Jamalul.  Later, the Malaysian security forces attacked the Rajah Muda’s group, escalating into bombing by fighter planes.  Talk about swatting mosquitos with hammers, considering that Kiram’s so-called “Royal Sultanate Army” was armed with rifles, kris and knives.

The Malaysian opposition party had also been claiming that the BN used Indonesian and Filipino immigrants to strengthen its electoral base giving them Identity Cards (ICs).   An IC legalizes the residency of the immigrants, paving the way for them to vote.  Some 800,000 Filipinos are residents of Sabah, many of whom have lived there peacefully for decades.  With the Indonesian IC-holders, the immigrant voting-block outnumbers the native Sabahans.  This has been a major issue in the campaign.

It would therefore seem that Malaysian politics has been the influential factor in the escalation of the siege to armed conflict.

Here at home, various interest groups have weighed in, increasing the level of tension and further complicating the international clash.  Today, with over 40 dead, we are in very dangerous waters.  Smelling blood, more sharks are circling.

As early as two weeks ago, I had already received information that Moro National Liberation Front troops were ready to rush to the defense of the besieged Rajah Muda, believing that it was their duty to defend their brothers as well as to defend the rightful claim of the Sulu Sultanate over Sabah.  Today, I have heard that the MNLF troops in Sulu and Tawitawi had started to sail to Sabah.  If they succeed in crossing over, armed with more than rifles and knives, what will happen?

Nationally, most of the commentaries I have heard from radio, TV, radio as well as social media networks have been supportive of Sultan Jamalul’s firm stance that the Sabah claim must be pursued and that the fighting must stop.   More and more are disenchanted with President Benigno Simeon Aquino III’s position on the situation, feeling that he is siding more with Malaysia rather than with their fellow Filipinos who are fighting for their rightful claim.   I, however, believe that perhaps PNoy is not receiving accurate advice.

On Wednesday, we at the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy met to discuss options to resolve the situation peacefully and with justice. Our recommendations included the following:

1.  To enforce the ceasefire, independent parties, such as the UN Peacekeeping Forces, should maintain order in the conflict areas.

2.  Peaceful and diplomatic resolution to the Sabah debacle between the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu and Malaysian security forces is the most viable option.

3. Malaysia to allow Red Crescent access, thus providing innocent victims and casualties medical assistance and humanitarian aid.

4. The highly volatile situation calls for tempered and experienced leaders, knowledgeable about the underlying issues, to diffuse the tensions. The Aquino Administration should create a Crisis Committee that can work on a peaceful and just resolution of the Lahad Datu crisis.  The Crisis Committee should be headed by the Office of the President and should include representatives of the Sultanate and the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, The Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of the Interior and Local Government, the National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the Commission on Human Rights, and the National Security Council.

The Crisis Committee shall work and find a way forward to address the present crisis in Sabah, Malaysia through legal avenues available and other instruments already agreed by the ASEAN and bilaterally by Malaysia and the Philippines.

5. Malaysia should heed the call by the Philippine Government to observe maximum tolerance should be pursued in the context of Islamic Brotherhood and ASEAN unity and for the Muslim countries within the ASEAN to help resolve the situation in Sabah peacefully to avert further loss of lives.

6. The members of the Royalty and Nobility of the Sulu Sultanate should unite behind the search for a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

7.  The Aquino administration should pursue discussion on the options to resolve the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. A just and peaceful resolution of the claim of the Sulu Sultanate, erstwhile ceded to the Philippine Government, will remove a thorny issue that has caused much uncertainty between Malaysia and the Philippines.

8. The Philippine Government should protect the proprietary rights of Sultan Jamalul Alam’s heirs, identified in the 1939 ruling of Chief Justice C.F.C. Macaskie of the High Court of the North Borneo.  All the principal heirs have died.  The rights of their successors-in-interest, most of whom are Filipino citizens, must be protected by the Philippine Government.

9. The Philippine Government should create a Sabah Committee, under the Office of the President, to address the Philippine claim to Sabah.  The members of the Committee should include the Department of Foreign Affairs, Department of Justice, Department of National Defense, Mindanao Development Authority, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process, the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, National Commission on Muslim Filipinos, a representative of the Sultanate of Sulu as well as a representative of the heirs to Sabah.

10. In addition, the Philippine Senate and the House of Representatives should create a Committee to investigate the options of the Philippines to pursue the Sabah claim peacefully and legally, and to ensure the protection of Filipinos residing in Sabah.

Will Filipino politicians and interest groups listen to the UN’s call for ceasefire and for peace?  Perhaps.  Will the Malaysians? A knowledgeable friend who has settled in Kuala Lumpur, and who has been monitoring Malaysian political developments, told me: “I doubt. If they did that, the next thing would be, they would have to talk and take seriously the claim you have spent years trying to resolve! They are in no mood to do that. This does not suit a regime facing the first real prospect of being booted out after 55 years and desperate to show it is in control of the country’s borders (which is a very basic duty most people expect a Government to perform).”

Logic dictates that the leaders should listen, if the goal is to end bloodshed and preserve peace.  However, I have found that such logic flies out of the window when vested interests prevail.  Blood is in the water and sharks are hungry. (MindaViews is the opinion sectionof MindaNews. This piece was first published on March 8, 2013 under “Surveil,” the column of Ms Amina Rasul for Businessworld. Ms Rasul granted MindaNews permission to reprint this piece).

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