Malaysia: Playing the Mindanao Card

malaysia-mindanaoWorld leaders may justify foreign intervention in other countries. However such actions come at a price which may not be exacted immediately, but when they are least expected. In the aftermath of Operation Merdeka, Malaysian support for the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao and Sulu intensified. Since then, Kuala Lumpur had devised a wily Mindanao strategy that it used as leverage in its dealings with Manila. But later events indicate that this strategy had also backfired.

External support escalated the Muslim rebellion in southern Philippines. Many were killed and properties were damaged. Thousands were internally displaced and tensions between Christian settlers and Muslim natives increased, and this animosity linger to this day. Many refugees made it to Sabah, which are just several hours by boat from Zamboanga and even closer to most islands in the Sulu archipelago.

These refugees eventually stretched Sabah’s social welfare capacity and led many Sabahans to hold them and their descendants with contempt as a burden and a security threat to the state. Kuala Lumpur’s attempt to change the demographic balance of Sabah by increasing its Muslim population and provide citizenship to Filipino and Indonesian Muslim immigrants also created some resentment between native non-Muslim Sabahans and later arrivals.

Malaysia’s reaction to the Lahad Datu standoff had been criticized by many human rights groups. While the original target was a group of only about 200 people, of which only about two dozen or so were armed, the Malaysian response crystallized in Operation Daulat. This operation was seen as excessive – a combined land, air and sea assault and deployment of several regular army battalions. While there is much pressure to come up with a strong response in the run-up to what many see as very close electoral contest, the Malaysian government should also weigh the reaction of local Sabahans, the Philippine government, not to mention the international community.

Refugees arriving in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga spoke of abuses and human rights violations committed by Malaysian security forces in the course of their mopping up operations and rooting out alleged supporters of the Royal Sulu Army. Beatings, harassment, intimidation and threats were heard from traumatized Tausugs and Sama-Bajaus fleeing Sabah. If proper measures will not be put in place, Malaysian plans to relocate Sabah coastal villagers allegedly “prone” to infiltration may also be susceptible to the same abuses, such as forced eviction and forced resettlement.

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In addition, Manila’s request for humanitarian missions and access to Filipinos caught in the conflict, including both suspected RSA members, supporters and innocent civilians, are still denied. Moreover, it is very difficult to obtain reliable reports on the ground since independent press were denied entry.

While Kuala Lumpur’s actions may address the immediate security risks posed by the few supporters of the Sulu Sultan, it may spur long-term negative backlash. The most immediate are grievances against Malaysia’s role in the GPH-MILF peace process, a role contested by some at the onset but did not get much attention until after the Lahad Datu standoff. The Philippine government maintained that the recent Sabah conundrum will not affect the peace process, but considering the sentiments of those who felt left out in the process and the refugees arriving from Sabah, the upcoming referendum test for the Kuala Lumpur-brokered peace framework will prove difficult.

Malaysia’s tainted image in the Mindanao peace process may also not sit well with its present role in ending the decades-old Muslim Malay insurgency in southern Thailand.

Finally, far from letting the dormant Philippine Sabah claim sleep another deep slumber, the recent Sabah issue will only add more pressure on Manila to take a more vigorous stance, not only in reviving, but more so in pursuing the claim through various legal and diplomatic means.

Interference in the affairs of other countries has its merits. But one should be prepared for its consequences. Will recent events compel Kuala Lumpur to rethink its Mindanao strategy? Whatever contours or features this new stratagem may have, let us all hope that it will bring lasting peace to Sulu and Mindanao and a just settlement of the never-ending Sabah issue.

(The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the official views of his affiliation.)

Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Assistant with the University of the Philippines Asian Center, where he is also pursuing his MA in Asian Studies. His research interests include Philippine foreign policy, Philippine-China and Philippine-ASEAN relations, territorial and maritime disputes and security. He can be reached at Read other articles by Lucio.