Sabah: a flashpoint waiting to happen?


Map of Philippines and Sabah (photo credit - betterphils, February 12, 2013, a few months before critical elections in both Malaysia and the Philippines, some 200 armed members of the self styled royal army of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the Sultanate of Sulu landed in Sabah, purportedly “to live in the area.”  The timing and audacity of the “exercise” made sure that the attention of Malaysian PM Najib Razak and Pres. Benigno Aquino III (and the world for that matter) is drawn to the moribund proprietary claim of the Sultanate over Sabah.  What followed next was a tense standoff between the Malaysian security forces and the armed  followers of Kiram for three weeks.

Peeved by the obvious breach of security in his backdoor, Razak dealt with the incident and its potential political fallout in the manner many heavy-handed politicians are inclined to do — “solve” the problem with extreme force and violence.  Malaysian fighter jets, helicopter gunships and overwhelming ground troops “shocked and awed” the motley band of Filipino “intruders”.

Who fired the first volley may never be established.  But by the time UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for “an end to violence in Sabah,” the air and ground assaults by the Malaysian military have left up to 60 persons dead and thousands of refugees, mostly Tausugs from southern Philippines.

Faced with the prospects of losing more seats to the coalesced oppositon party PKR (Pakatan Rakyat) in the June 2013 elections and the collapse of his shaky coalition government, Razak had to show the Malaysian voters, the best he knows how, that he is in control of the situation in Sabah.

Is he really in control?  Unfortunately for him, he can only react; he is right where Kiram wants him to be — ignoring UN’s call for a peaceful resolution of the conflict and placing his back against the wall.  Even worse for him, his heavy-handed handling of the incident might have just planted the seed of a protracted and very costly asymmetric warfare for Malaysia in Sabah and Eastern Malaysia against battle-hardened Tausug and Badjao guerilla fighters.

For his part, Pres. Aquino himself is fighting for control of both houses of Congress in the May 2013 elections.  Unlike Razak, he is in no danger of losing his job, regardless of the outcome of the elections.  Losing control of Congress to the opposition will however be troublesome, if not very costly, for the legislative agenda of his remaining 3 years in office.

The Sabah crisis dragged Pres. Aquino into the difficult position of balancing relations with neighbor Malaysia against his sworn duties to the Constitution (which provides for Philippine sovereignty over Sabah) and the safety and interest of some half a million Filipinos living in Sabah.

Nobody quarrels with his admonition of the Sultan and his followers that force is not the way to resolve the dispute over Sabah.  But at the same time, he must show the Filipino people that genuine negotiations with Malaysia are being done to secure the safety of Filipinos in Sabah and the cessation of armed hostilities in the area.  Reports of human rights violations commited by the Malaysian security forces against Filipinos in Sabah must also be validated and brought to the attention of the Malaysian government and human rights bodies for investigation and appropriate action.

How do we address the seemingly unresolvable dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia over resource-rich Sabah?  Obviously the only way to resolve the matter is through negotiations.  But first, the fighting must stop to allow for negotiations to take place.  For as long as the parties to the dispute are talking in an atmosphere of open-mindedness and objectivity (instead of shooting at each other), the opportunity for reaching a principled compromise will always be present.  All these efforts must however take  place against the background of Philippine claim over Sabah.

Malaysia and the Philippines cannot afford to allow the tense and volatile atmosphere in Sabah to deteriorate to the point that the area becomes “the Kashmir” of Southeast Asia.

For the Aquino administration, the Sabah crisis brought home two practical, overarching lessons in conflict resolution, as a consequence of a hastily processed peace agreement.  First, it should negotiate and conclude peace in Mindanao with a party that speaks for all in Muslim Mindanao.  The Sabah crisis now threatens to sidetrack the Malaysian-brokered peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Hashim Salamat-led Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Who speaks for ALL in Muslim Mindanao?  In the absence of such a single, unifying voice, ALL the peace stakeholders in Muslim Mindanao, including the Sultanate of Sulu and the Nur Misuari-led Moro National Liberation Front, must be consulted, gathered and brought to the bargaining table.  The entire process and its end product must stand up to both public and judicial scrutiny.

We can learn from the experience of a similar peace process that occured among warring racial and ethno-political groups in South Africa during the country’s transition from apartheid to democracy.

Second, Malaysia, a “non-neutral” country to the Mindanao conflict, is hardly the ideal third-party sponsor and guarantor of a peace agreement in Muslim Mindanao.  To begin with, Malaysia has neither the geopolitical clout nor the strong military that can guarantee and enforce the spirit and letter of a peace agreement upon the contracting parties.

For the Sultan and his armed followers, they have already achieved the objective of their “mission” in Sabah — i.e. draw world’s attention to the Sultanate’s proprietary claim over Sabah — and must now withdraw back to Sulu and face the consequences of their action.

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 18 March 2013

Related images

Geographical location of Sabah

Geographical location of Sabah (photo credit:

Pres. Benigno Aquino III

Pres.  Benigno Aquino III calling for talks on Sabah (photo credit: Yahoo!News)

Malaysian PM Najib Razak

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sultan Jamalul Kiram III

Sultan Jamalul Kiram III announcing to the press that his camp will uphold the unilateral ceasefire it declared earlier, but clarified that his men can “defend themselves” (photo credit: Yahoo! News)

Nur Misuari

Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (photo credit: Inquirer News)

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for an end to Sabah violence

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon calling for an end to violence in Sabah (photo credit: GMA News)

Malaysian soldiers board a helicopter

Malaysian soldiers board a helicopter for an assault against the armed followers of Sultan Kiram (photo credit: GMA News)

Malaysian armored personnel carrier

A Malaysian armored personnel carrier heads toward Sabah clash site (photo credit: GMA News)

Malaysian Navy combat boats

Malaysian Navy combat boats patrolling the sea lane near Sabah clash site (photo credit: GMA News)


Malaysian soldiers  hunt Kiram followers

Malaysian soldiers hunt Kiram followers (photo credit: GMA News)


Residents leave their village

Residents leave their village as fighting erupted between Malaysian security forces and the armed followers of Kiram (photo credit: GMA News)

Razak visits clash site

Razak (center) visits the clash site (photo credit: GMA News)

Malaysian Defense Minister shows picture of dead followers of Kiram

Malaysian defense minister Zahid Hamidi shows unverified picture of dead followers of Kiram (photo credit: GMA News)

Bodies of Malaysian cops killed in Sabah clash arrive in Kuala Kumpur

Bodies of Malaysian cops killed in Sabah clash arrive in Kuala Lumpur (photo credit: GMA News)

Two unidentified men apprehended and hogtied by Malaysian police

Two unidentified men detained and hogtied by Malaysian police (photo credit: GMA News)

Misuari raises the hand of Kiram

MNLF chieftain Misuari (left) raises the hand of Kiram as a show of support (photo credit: GMA News)

Muslims call on  Malaysia to stop Sabah bloodshed

Muslims call on Malaysia to stop Sabah bloodshed (photo credit: GMA News)

Protesters in front of Malaysian Embassy

Multi-sectoral protesters in front of the Malaysian Embassy in Makati City renewing call for an end to violence in Sabah (photo credit: GMA News)

Malaysian demonstrators display poster of Kiram

Malaysian demonstrators display posters of Kiram (photo credit: GMA News)