ZAMBOANGA CITY - A two-week standoff between a group of Filipino Muslims and Malaysian security officials over territory on the oil-rich island of Borneo highlights the lack of consensus surrounding last year's peace agreement between the Philippine government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
On February 12, an estimated 180 Filipinos referring to themselves as the "Sultanate's Royal Security Forces" arrived by boat from the southern Philippines on Lahad Datu, a remote part of Sabah state in northeastern Malaysia, to assert a centuries-old claim to the area by the Sultanate of Sulu.
The lightly armed group is now squared off with Malaysian security forces while both governments scramble for a peaceful resolution to the situation. Malaysian police forces have declared a series of deadlines for the group to leave the area but each has passed without an armed crackdown. On Monday, the group rebuffed Manila's offer to escort them back to the Philippines on a naval vessel.
The Sultanate of Sulu ruled the contested area in Sabah for centuries before it was transferred by British colonialists to Malaysia in 1963. At the time the Philippines contested the transfer, claiming that the British North Borneo Company leased rather than purchased the eastern part of Sabah from the sultanate and thus did not possess the authority to transfer ownership to Malaysia.
Kuala Lumpur continues to make modest "cession" payments to the heirs of the sultanate, in apparent recognition of the territory's contested absorption. Despite receipt of those payments, reigning Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III issued a decree on November 1, 2012 mandating his followers and royal security forces to travel to and settle peacefully in Sabah.
For decades, Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III has called to no avail on Philippine governments, including incumbent President Benigno Aquino's administration, to support his sultanate's historical claim to Sabah. The sultan's royal order to his followers was issued just two weeks after the signing of the provisional Framework Agreement for Bangsamoro between the government and MILF rebels to create a new autonomous region on the southern island of Mindanao.
Kiram, who reigns over an archipelago situated at the remote southernmost tip of the Philippines, has complained he was excluded from the MILF negotiations. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda has countered by noting that Karim attended the official signing ceremony of the agreement. "It is unfortunate that he's complaining only now, " Lacierda said.
MILF leaders have declined to comment on Kiram's royal order to occupy Sabah, saying only without elaborating that it is a "very sensitive" issue. Some analysts believe that Mindanao's long and debilitating armed conflict will not be wholly resolved as long as there remain pockets of disgruntled armed groups.
Julkipli Wadi, head of the University of the Philippines' Islamic Studies department, said that the sultanate's claim to Sabah is at the heart of the wider conflict in Mindanao. Both the MILF and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) trace their rebel beginnings to the Philippine government's push in the late 1960s to reclaim Sabah.
Their rebellion was sparked by the massacre of an estimated 150 ethnic Moro Muslims from Sulu who were trained in late 1967 by the Philippine military to undertake Operation Merdeka, a clandestine effort to foment instability among non-Malay groups in Sabah in advance of an invasion. The recruits eventually balked at the prospect of killing fellow Muslims in Sabah and were massacred when they demanded to return to Sulu.
A group of ethnic Moro Muslim intellectuals led by Nur Misuari later formed the MNLF and commenced an armed struggle against Manila's rule in response to the military's betrayal and brutality of fellow Moros. The MILF broke away from the MNLF in 1977 after the group's leaders accepted a government offer of semi-autonomy over the territories it controlled in a deal brokered by Libya.
"Some claim the root causes of Mindanao conflict are poverty, self-determination and ideology but if we are to examine the conflict closely, the root cause of the Mindanao conflict is the Sabah claim issue," Wadi said.
Aquino has sided publicly with Malaysia on the issue, which has strained bilateral relations already vexed by the frequent deportation of undocumented Filipinos based in Sabah. To defuse the situation, Aquino sent representatives to Kiram requesting that he call back his people.
"It must be clear to you that this small group of people will not succeed in addressing your grievances, and that there is no way that force can achieve your aims," Aquino said in a public statement on Tuesday.
He further warned the heirs of the sultanate that they could face tax evasion charges for receiving a token annual rent of US$1,500 from Malaysia in cessation money. "They could be arrested if a warrant is issued by the court for non-payment of taxes," Aquino said.
Kiram has responded defiantly by saying he is willing to face all of the threatened charges.
At the same time, the incident has stoked the passions of certain nationalistic Filipino lawmakers. Party list congressman Sherwin Tugna recently called on the government to take a stand on the sultanate's claim to Sabah, likening the situation to Manila's territorial conflicts with China in the South China Sea. Last year's standoff between Filipino and Chinese vessels over the Scarborough Shoal sparked hitherto unseen waves of territorial nationalism in the Philippines.
It still seems doubtful that the Sulu sultanate's claim to territory in Sabah will galvanize a similar grassroots response. But the incident has underscored the fragility and lack of consensus behind last year's peace deal with the MILF. The government and MILF are still discussing implementing mechanisms of the peace agreement, including the potential deal breaker of under what conditions the MILF would be willing to decommission their arms.
Two armed groups, the Sulu-based Abu Sayyaf and central Mindanao-based Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, have rejected the agreement and continue to defy the government's authority. If the grievances of the Sultanate's Royal Security Forces are unaddressed, or the group is martyred in an armed crackdown, they could emerge as a new third armed group bent on undermining the MILF's peace deal.
Several analysts and activists believe that the conflict in Mindanao cannot be resolved unless all stakeholders are represented. "How can we achieve peace and development in Mindanao when Mindanaoans are not equally represented in the negotiating panel?" said Rolly Pelinggon, national convener for Mindanaoans for Mindanao, a people's organization lobbying for more equitable distribution of state programs and projects in the region.
Noel T Tarrazona
Noel T Tarrazona, MPA, is a permanent resident (immigrant) of Vancouver, Canada. He is presently in Mindanao doing development work. He is also a teaching faculty member of the Universidad de Zamboanga Master of Public Administration Program.
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