RIVERMAN’S VISTA: The Sabah Dilemma

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QUEZON CITY (MindaNews/01 March) — The Sabah question has been dormant for almost half a century. The last time it came into the spotlight was in 1968 when the Philippine government initiated destabilization moves to reclaim the territory in what is now known as “Operation Merdeka” which led to the equally infamous “Jabidah Massacre.”

As early as during the administration of President Macapagal, special military units were formed in an attempt to reassert the country’s claim over the territory from its effective occupant, the Federation of Malaysia. However it was during the time of President Marcos that the Philippine government took more concrete steps to annex Sabah.  As we now know, “Operation Merdeka” failed to launch when the nearly 200 Tausug and Sama Muslims from Sulu Province and Tawi-Tawi who were recruited for specialized training mutinied over, among others, the non-payment of the promised monthly stipend.  To keep the lead on the potentially explosive covert ops, the recruits were killed.  It would have remained a secret if not for one recruit named Jibin Arula who managed to survive.

Fast forward fifty years later. Last February around 200 armed men calling themselves as the “Royal Army” of Sultan Jamalul Kiram of Sulu holed out in Lahad Datu town in Sabah ostensibly to claim their ancestral right over the region. This potentially explosive incident has the Philippine government scrambling for solutions to prevent the situation going out of hand.

As things now stand, the best case scenario is for the Sultan to finally persuade his followers to lay down their arms and peacefully return to Tawi-Rawi.  The worst case scenario, the Malaysian government finally decides to forcibly evict the “intruders” inevitably resulting in bloodshed.

At present, the Sultan and his men are digging in and refusing to budge even after ultimatums by the Malaysian government have come and gone. If they remain in their intransigence, then perhaps there is no other option but for the Malaysian government to use force. In which case, Muslim sympathizers from the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and even some from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) might come to the succor of their beleaguered Muslim brethren and create trouble in Sabah. Remember that there are hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, many of them Muslims, who are long-time residents and making a living in this Malaysian territory.

Indeed, President Aquino in his statement to Kiram correctly observed that “the action of these people endangers more than just their own lives. They also put at risk our countrymen peacefully engaged in their livelihood in Sabah.”

That the Philippine government is doing its very best to contain the situation and resolve the standoff peacefully is understandable.  This brinkmanship has the potential of brewing more trouble for the country than is apparent. It can affect the 800,000 Filipinos already in Sabah, drag our Muslim brothers in the south to the conflict, and even derail the just concluded peace process between the MILF and GPH, not to mention that it will strain our friendly relations with Malaysia. Really, much is hanging in the balance as a result of the irresponsible action by this ragtag army and their leader, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

This is not to say that we are relinquishing our Sabah claim. Despite the change in phraseology in Article I of the 1987 Constitution (remember the 1973 Constitution phraseology says, “all other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title.” as opposed to the wording in the 1987 Constitution: “all other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction”), there is no indication that the Philippine government has relinquished its claim over the territory of Sabah. The change is essentially a matter of semantics but the intention is not to abandon the claim.

This is not also to say that the historic claim of the Sultan of Sulu is without any basis.  Tradition and historical records recount that the Sultanate of Sulu was granted the territory as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei against his enemies. As early as the 18th century, most of northeastern part of Borneo was within the dominion of Sulu.  In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu and British commercial syndicate entered into an agreement whereby the Sultanate agreed to lease North Borneo to the British syndicate for 5000 Malayan Dollars per year.  In 1903 Sultan Jamalul Kiram signed a document either granting, ceding or leasing more islands near North Borneo to British North Borneo Company for 5,000 dollars a year payable every year. In time the British turned over the possession and government of Sabah to the Federation of Malaysia which took over and exercised dominion over the disputed territory.  Yet even with this historical claim, there is no justification to occupy by force a territory over which another country exercises sovereignty, no matter how tenuous it might seem.

There are compelling reasons why resolving the Sabah issue peacefully, and not by force, remains the only rational option and is more consonant with our national interest.

First, as already mentioned by the President, the Sabah claim is a complex issue that impinges on the “question of the rightful heirs, and even involving the translation of documents from a by-gone era.” There is therefore the need to first set the historical records straight before any claim by the Philippines can proceed on solid legal ground. And prosecuting this claim can be done only through internationally accepted means for instance going to the International Court of Justice, through negotiations or arbitration and the like.

Second reason is based on more pragmatic considerations. Other than the fact that an aggressive stance would severely undermine our burgeoning economy, if we were to believe the World Bank’s statement that the Philippines is a rising economic tiger, we cannot dismiss the support of Malaysia, a fellow member of the ASEAN, in dealing with a more aggressive China with respect to the Spratlys.

Third reason is the question perhaps foremost in the minds of most of us: Do we have the capability to unilaterally enforce our territorial claims?  To this, we all know the answer.

Finally and most importantly, the Philippines is a peace loving country that repudiates war and violence as an instrument of national policy. After all, we are signatory to all covenants and international agreements that outlaw war and violence as a means to resolve international differences.

Now we can only hope that our Muslim brethren in Lahad Datu will finally see the light and voluntarily return; that the Malaysian authorities acceded to the Philippine government’s request to extend the deadline; and finally, that no violence would ensue.  Only then can our government address the grievances of the Sultan and his men in a more civilized manner.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Dean Tony La Viña is a human rights and environmental lawyer from Cagayan de Oro City. He was a member of the Government of the Philippines Peace Panel that negotiated with the MILF from January-June 2010. He is currently the Dean of the Ateneo School of Government. Dean Tony can be reached at Tonylavs@gmail.com. Follow him on Facebook: tlavina@yahoo.com and on Twitter: tonylavs.)

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