Will Sabah Become Malaysia’s Waterloo?

malaysia-philippines-sabahMalaysia and the Philippines’ inability to resolve the resource-rich disputed Sabah territory has resulted in Operation Merdeka, an alleged plan to annex Sabah to the Philippines. Operation Merdeka may have resulted from a failure to reach a compromise solution on the Sabah issue after the creation of the Malaysian Federation.

Fear of a deep-seated Malaysian position in the area which may put the Philippine position at a gross disadvantage if a final settlement is drawn may constitute another salient factor. When word about the plot came out in the media because of the Jabidah massacre, Manila came under fire from critics and local Muslim groups and an investigation was launched.

There are still disputes about the authenticity of the Jabidah massacre. On March 18, Philippine President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino Jr., the son of the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Sr. who leaked the Jabidah massacre to the press, acknowledged the incident and commemorated its 45th anniversary in Corregidor Island. But while Manila disavowed itself from Operation Merdeka once it was publicized, Malaysia capitalized on it to justify its support for Muslim insurrectionist movements in Sulu and Mindanao.

After news of the Jabidah massacre circulated, Malaysia began to fund, equip, support and provide training camps to Muslim rebels from Sulu and Mindanao. Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) leader Nur Misuari admitted that he, along with other comrades, received training from Malaysia. But even with Malaysian support (as well as Libyan and other foreign support) the rebellion persisted with no clear sight of victory. War weariness set in and prolonged aid to the rebels already became a burden to their sponsors. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and MNLF, although this did not stop the fighting as a new Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), came into being.

While the Philippines claim Sabah territory as a successor of the Sultanate of Sulu, Malaysia undermines Manila’s control on this area. The Muslim insurgency in the south, not to mention the communist New People’s Army (NPA), made the Philippines focus on internal security, a policy whose adverse implications are now strongly felt in the West Philippine Sea. Focusing on the local Muslim rebellion also afforded Manila little energy left to pursue its legitimate Sabah claim. Ending the rebellion by cutting off the rebels’ sources of external support also meant that the Philippine government would have to diplomatically engage Malaysia and Libya, among others, giving Malaysia leverage over the Philippines.

During the 1970s, a by-product of Malaysia’s support for the Muslim insurgency in Sulu and Mindanao was the influx of Filipino refugees and economic migrants to Sabah fleeing for their lives and in search of better opportunities lacking in their war-torn hometowns. Aside from straining Sabah’s resources for social welfare, it also helped form the stigma of Filipinos as being a burden and a security threat to Sabah – an enduring perception that fueled social and ethnic tensions in North Borneo. The recent Lahad Datu incident only heightened these tensions which could lead to more discrimination, abuses or persecution by Malaysian security forces of the more than 800,000-strong Filipino community in the state, regardless of their political sympathies.

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The failure to end the Lahad Datu standoff amicably and the violence that ensued afterwards exposed Malaysia’s still tenuous foothold in Sabah despite years of contested administration. It also shed light on the significant support and sympathy expressed by the people of Sabah, notably the Tausugs and Sama-Bajau peoples, to the Sulu Sultan. These peoples abhorred being treated as foreigners in their ancestral lands and resented the failure of the recently Malaysian-brokered peace deal between Manila and MILF to engage the Sulu Sultanate and the Tausugs.

In reaction to Malaysia’s Operation Daulat against a small number of the Sultan’s followers – widely seen as an overkill – many MNLF members who felt upset and bound to help their brethren besieged in Sabah reportedly slipped into Sabah to join the fighting. The ease by which these groups accomplished this feat exposes the difficulty of guarding a long coastline inhabited by peoples who travel these artificial maritime boundaries for trade, visits and exchange since time immemorial.

Muhajab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council, also pointed out that MNLF fighters “know the area (Sabah) like the back of their hand because they trained there in the past.” Now Malaysia is reliving the US experience in Afghanistan when the insurgents they supported against the Soviets eventually turned against them. If fighting continues or the roots of the problem were not addressed, will Sabah become Malaysia’s Waterloo?

(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 lucioatacup@rocketmail.com. Read other articles by Lucio.