WALKING IN THEIR SHOES | Understanding what drives protagonists in Sabah crisis
The online news portal of TV5
MANILA – To move forward in this mess over Sabah, it may be wise to put on the shoes of the protagonists and walk several minutes in them.
On the side of Jamalul Kiram III, why did his third brother choose this time to make his “journey back home” to Sabah to assert their family’s claim over the island?
1. The peace agreement between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that was brokered by Malaysia is expected to be signed this March. Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III has already expressed disappointment at being left out of the peace talks that would grant autonomy to a huge swath of land in Central and Western Mindanao. He is afraid that the agreement would effectively drop the Philippine claim over Sabah.
2. Apart from this, the signing is also politically significant to Malaysia and the Philippines. With upcoming elections to be held in the two countries, the signing is expected to boost the chances of the administration candidates in both countries.
3. This year also marks the 50th year of the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. The heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu might have been spooked by the possibility of Malaysia stopping the annual rental payments to their family. Rumors to this effect were rife shortly before Rajah Mudah (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram went to Lahad Datu, Sabah with some 200 followers on Feb. 9.
Here are some points that may be useful in understanding the Malaysian mindset so that the conflict in Sabah may be resolved:
1. What are Malaysia’s interests in Sabah?
Aside from the island’s obvious wealth in natural resources, territorial and security issues pertaining to the island also concern Malaysia. From its creation in 1963, the Federation of Malaysia has wanted to ensure that Sabah (or North Borneo as the Malaysians refer to it) is an inseparable part. It also wants to reduce the vulnerability of East Malaysia to security threats.
Malaysia has been known to be anxious about security threats to its eastern region arising more from external factors, i.e., the Al Qaeda-linked regional terror group Jemaah Islamiyah. It seems Malaysia worries that the JI could use Sabah to set up a sort of pan-Islamic state---one that would cover parts of three original ASEAN members, Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia.
Because of this fear, Malaysia could be moving to make its so-called security buffer zone stretch beyond Sabah, and extend up to the southern Mindanao islands of Tawi-tawi and Sulu. And, once the MILF is granted autonomous powers and authority, it can work with the MILF to do so. Malaysia thus wants the status quo that maintains its hold over Sabah.
These concerns are expressed in how it engages the Philippines, particularly in its significant role as facilitator and host of the peace talks between the MILF and the Philippine government.
2. Why is Malaysia’s role in the GPH-MILF peace talks significant?
This broker role has not been lost on many diplomats at the Department of Foreign Affairs. Although some sectors at the DFA have sought to pursue the Sabah claim - an irritant in the good relations between two close neighbors, the Philippine inaction on the claim over the years makes it safe to assume that the standing policy is to relegate the issue to the backburner - until the Kirams’ incursion in February, when everyone was forced to face the issue squarely.
And while the Philippines has been quiet on the Sabah claim, Malaysia has proceeded to exercise actual control over the area and its people. On the legal front, Malaysia has consciously linked its facilitator role in the GPH-MILF peace talks and the Sabah issue.
3. Who can solve the Sulu claim?
To the Malaysians, the issue is to be resolved between their government and the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, especially after the latter revoked in 1989 their authorization for the Philippine government to represent them.
4. How does Malaysia regard the Sultan of Sulu?
Malaysia recognizes Jamalul Kiram III as the legitimate the heir of the Sultan of Sulu. Proof: Since the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, it has not allowed a year to pass without paying the 5,300 ringgits as rental for Sabah to Jamalul Kiram III’s family.
Few may know this, but in Feb. 2011, barely two years ago, the KL government, through its Ambassador Ibrahim Saad, reportedly met with Jamalul Kiram III in Manila. The supposed purpose of the meeting: to offer the heirs 350,000 ringgits to renew the lease for another 100 years. It is unclear what happened there.