Apr 1, 2013

Malaysia - Asean won't accept 'states within states'

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INTRUSION: Unlawful for Kiram to have private army and wage war on another nation

THE security breach in Sabah remains a lingering problem, thanks largely to the claims made by one person who has sparked off what is really a complex internal debate within Philippine society itself.
Jamalul Kiram III's demand that he be recognised as the sultan of Sulu with a claim on some parts of Sabah has raised an even deeper question that the Philippines has to address: can the Philippine republic accept the idea that within its republican framework there are citizens who claim to be more than citizens, and who claim that they have power and authority over parts of the republic which they argue are part of their own kingdom?

In short, can the Philippine republic accept the idea of a state within a state, or in this case a kingdom within a republic?

The initial answer to this might seem to be a straightforward "no". As President Benigno Aquino himself noted during one of his press conferences, it is technically unconstitutional for any Philippine citizen to have a private army, to bear arms without licences and to declare war on another country. On legal grounds, Kiram's stand seems shaky indeed.

But Kiram continues to probe into the soft underbelly of the postcolonial state by invoking primordial attachments to the past, and this is where the modern postcolonial state of the Philippines -- like all other Asean states -- has to address the question of its own complicated origins and genesis.

Let us remember that the states of Asean are a varied lot: when the countries of Southeast Asia became independent from the 1940s to 1960s, they emerged on the stage of world politics in different shapes and forms.

Today, when we look at the Asean region we see constitutional democracies, constitutional monarchies, republics, single-party states and so on. Each Asean country has had to find its own way of dealing with the legacy of the past.

But in this respect, Malaysia, Brunei and Thailand are more alike for none of these states has marginalised or eclipsed the older polities that pre-existed before independence.

The Federation of Malaysia, for one, maintains some degree of relative authority over the nine kingdoms where the sultans of Malaysia remain as important figures in the context of their respective kingdoms.

Like Thailand, Malaysia is also a country with a constitutional head of state. But in Malaysia, as in Thailand, it is the government that prints the national currency, deals with other states and manages things like international relations and diplomacy.

The Philippines on the other hand is more akin to Indonesia and Myanmar which have opted to become republics, and where the former ruling elites have been integrated into the broader framework of universal citizenship.

Myanmar's royal family practically ceased to exist after the Third Anglo-Burmese war of 1885, and though traces remain in terms of some of their descendants, there has never been an attempt to revive the Burmese kingship in modern-day Myanmar. Indonesia, too, once had many royal courts in Java, Sumatra, Nusa Tenggara, Sulawesi and Kalimantan. But most of the royal houses were brought under the auspices of the centralised state after the tumultuous years of Indonesia's war of independence between 1945 and 1949. Today, they exist in name only, but with no real political power or authority.

As far as the structure of the state is concerned, the Philippines bears a much closer resemblance to Indonesia than it does to Malaysia, and this is where the problem lies -- though it has to be emphasised that this is a Philippine problem, and not Malaysia's.

Like Indonesia, the Philippines does not accept the idea that there can be a state within a state in the republic, which is why Kiram is no different in terms of his rights and obligations from any other citizen.

In Indonesia, too, there remain many sultans such as the rulers of Cirebon, Yogjakarta and Surakarta in Java. But they, too, have no special powers or rights, and they too come under the law of the republic.

Indonesia has been better able to deal with some of the claims of the former rulers of the country, for the central government has displayed more sensitivity in according them the respect that is their due: in the history books of Indonesia, Indonesian children learn about the role played by the sultans in the anti-colonial struggle for instance.

And today the kingdom of Yogjakarta has been able to reposition itself very well, packaging itself as a tourist destination and presenting itself as the custodian of Javanese art, culture and heritage.

Some of the less fortunate kingdoms in Sumatra and Kalimantan, however, have fallen into a state of despair and ruin.

The fate of the sultanate of Sulu seems to be similar to that of some of the now-defunct royal houses of Indonesia.

Bereft of funds and with no real political authority, it relies on cultural capital and its claims to history to project itself.

But Kiram’s armed incursion into Malaysia was probably one of his “biggest miscalculations”, to quote the Philippine analyst Joseph Franco; and has now turned into a major own goal that has robbed him and his followers of whatever residual sympathy others may have had for his cause.

The royal families of Indonesia have also tried to project themselves internationally, but through their promotion of the arts, by appealing to Unesco, and by maintaining their relevance as a bastion of culture and history — and certainly not by waging war against the Indonesian republic, which would be politically self-defeating.

However this crisis pans out in the near future is anyone’s guess at the moment, though one thing is clear for now: Asean, for all its strengths and weaknesses, is a still a region where no country accepts the notion of states within states, and that is not likely to change tomorrow.

Farish A. Noor

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