Mar 1, 2013


A word of caution to Malaysia. Malaysia should refrain from pushing the button. My recommendation is for Malaysia to LIFT its announced "deadline to vacate” and the food blockade imposed to scuttle the Sultanate's resolve. Extending it to a few more days won’t work. It will only lead to the brink.

Now that the Philippine government is grappling with the incident and has indicated that it will help handle the situation, it may be best for Malaysia to just leave the matter, for the meantime, to the Philippine side to resolve the so-called "stand off". THIS WILL NEED COOLING OFF TIME so deadlines won't help. I strongly suggest that the Philippine backchannels, official or otherwise, must work round the clock to convince Malaysia to LEAVE THE MATTER TO THE PHILIPPINE SIDE TO RESOLVE THIS. Time is of the essence. Malaysia must also be given a "graceful exit" of lifting its declared "deadline" by making it appear that it is merely acceding to a "friendly neighbor's" request. After all, this way Malaysia will pass on the onus of the problem to the Philippine side. And Filipinos, I know, will have a way of quietly resolving it in time. For the moment, this is a Filipino problem that only Filipinos can resolve.

MY OWN SABAH "ENCOUNTERS" --I had my own share of "encounters " with this ticklish SABAH issue when I was with government in Malacanang during FVR's and GMA's time.

I recall when the four countries under the BIMP EAGA (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines East Asian Growth Area) were set to sign a document setting up a facilitation center to be based in Kota Kinabalu, the document hit a snag when the address of the center was written in the draft Agreement as "Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia". The Philippine Foreign Affairs department in Padre Faura declined to affix the Philippine signature because it will indirectly accept Sabah as part of Malaysia.

Again, when backchannels were suggesting that we open a Philippine consulate in Sabah ostensibly to protect the Filipinos there (due to their numbers and recurring problems), our government firmly but courteously declined. A Philippine Consular Office in Sabah can be interpreted to mean that we officially acknowledge Sabah as within Malaysian territory.

All of these were done discreetly but "with grace and aplomb", cognizant of the Philippine pending claim but balancing with the imperatives of international diplomacy.

On the Sultanate of Sulu side, there were behind-the-scene efforts to adroitly handle the Kirams to keep them assured that they were "not sidelined” and kept them from feeling aggrieved and that we were not somehow squandering away their proprietary interests they held dear. This worked during FVR and GMA's time. Remember one of the Kirams was even included in the previous Administration's senatorial slate? Remember one of the Kirams in the recent past was given a high position in the sports commission? That was the whole point! How the Aquino government handled this now, I have no way of knowing at all.

For President Aquino to publicly accuse recently some personalities of conspiracy in allegedly staging this Sabah "stand off" scenario to torpedo the MILF peace negotiations is, with due respects to the President, too haphazard and premature for a head of state to do at this early stage. There are many factors at play.

NOT ON RADAR ---As part of my BIMP EAGA tasks in the past, as the highest Philippine official, I had traveled several times to Sabah together with Philippine government officials and the private sector. There were no hassles at all and we were dealing with our neighbors in purely economic engagements. Political, like sovereignty issues were not on our radar screen.

BIMP EAGA, as a matter of fact was set up by President Ramos and Prime Minister Mahathir (who came to Davao just to launch it) to emphasize the primacy and need for economic cooperation amongst neighboring countries in the south. In the process, the political issues took a back seat, effectively relegating "sovereignty issues" in the "back burners". In fact, it became a non-issue.

GOOD NEIGHBOR --- Now that the "cat is out of the bag", Sabah will be a lingering issue for sometime. No doubt it will have a bearing on our relations with Malaysia next door, which has been a good neighbor in the ASEAN and BIMP EAGA sphere. It will have security implications. It has international ramifications. It may affect in some way the on-going peace negotiations with the MILF where ancestral domain issues which deal on territorial claims for the Bangsamoro are major sticky points. With the public resurrection of the Sultanate claim, the question begs to be answered: why is the ancestral domain claim of the MILF purportedly in representation of all Bangsamoro EXCLUDING Sabah when there is historical basis for such claim? Of course, for obvious reasons, Malaysia's earnest and key role as peace talks facilitator will be put under cloud. For sure, MNLF Chairman Nur Misuari who still nurses some ill feelings on the way he was treated by the Malaysians during his arrest and detention there, will use this development as a platform to pursue his "claim Sabah" campaign. His disdain on the Malaysian- brokered MILF Framework Agreement is too public to ignore. I can't help but suspect that some of Chairman Nur's MNLF elements are part of the armed contingent now in Lahad Datu.

SECURITY IMPLICATIONS-- But I am more worried about the effect of all this on our relations with Malaysia, our next-door neighbor which has been a good ally in the ASEAN hemisphere. It has also serious security implications for the Philippines because we have "opened our barracks" to Malaysians who know exactly the AFP capabilities (and weaknesses), especially in Mindanao with Malaysian military forces actively engaged in ceasefire work in every nook of our southern region. They know every detail of our AFP's operational status in the south, to the last detachment on the ground. . Of course, armed hostilities between us and Malaysia is far fetched but it's good to point this out for our own reality check.

MALAYSIAN ELECTIONS TOO -- Now, the Aquino administration is confronted with it and is compelled to deal with it. The timing of the eruption of the issue during our own May election campaign period is also unfortunate. We know how it is when some political candidates will use this as an issue in the campaigns.

Many may not be aware of this but there is ALSO the forthcoming elections in Malaysia THIS YEAR . The controversy will be a factor, no doubt. This may be internal Malaysian matter but I am informed reliably that there is some quiet rancor and insecurity amongst Tausugs who are in Sabah now and who are not even involved in the so-called "stand off". The ROYAL INQUISITION COMMISSION in Malaysia had started to look closely at the IMMIGRATION CARDS (IC) system that granted resident or legal status to some Filipino Muslims, mostly Tausugs from Sulu as part of some political move to downscale the voting strength of Sabahans in the forthcoming Malaysian elections. Many TAUSUGS, mostly Sultanate "subjects" who are long time residents there were affected. The campaign was the cause of many forced repatriations. My calculation is that while the actual body count involved in the "stand off" is said to have 200 to 300 warm bodies, the feeling of insecurity and grievance is pervasive amongst many Sabah residents who came from Mindanao. THEY ARE POTENTIAL "ACTORS" IF THE SCENARIO IS MISHANDLED.

I was also reliably informed that Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the Former Deputy Minister of Malaysia who was charged and detained but was acquitted of sodomy charges, had met sometime ago with Chairman Nur Misuari (also charged and detained and also acquitted for rebellion). They did not talk about their cases for sure. . Yes, they discussed this "IC" cleansing issue in Sabah. What came out of that meeting was still unclear.

WAY FORWARD --- One way forward is to pursue it as "proprietary" issue to protect the rights of the Sultanate of Sulu. From my own assessment, the Sultanate appears insecure due to the reported approaching "expiration" of the lease payments. It is also aggrieved because Malaysia reportedly increased the amount of payments for Sarawak, another tenement similar to Sabah's situation. The IC "cleansing" which has negative viral effect on Filipino Muslims in Sabah and its ramifications in Malaysian politics is another matter. Let's not forget the Misuari-MNLF factor. These must all be taken into account.

MARHATABAT -- A final word. A premature and reckless move by Malaysian authorities, even as a public avowal of its non-negotiable policy of Malaysian territorial integrity may trigger a more complicated scenario. I am not making this up or sound threatening. But it is publicly known that the TAUSUGS of Sulu (and many of them are now EMBEDDED in communities in Sabah) value their honor and dignity. Muslims refer to this as "marhatabat". They value this more than life. USE OF FORCE TO RESOLVE THIS WILL ONLY WORSEN THINGS. - source


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