Filipino ethnic groups including the Sama-Bajaus and Tausugs (known as Suluks in Sabah) have long been residing in Sabah, many predating the 1968 creation of the Federation of Malaysia. These groups crisscrossed the maritime boundaries of present day Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia for trade, visiting relatives and cultural exchange long before stricter maritime patrols made these historical movements more difficult.
However in the 1970s more Filipinos wanting to escape conflict that plagued Mindanao and the Sulu area fled and took refuge in Sabah, creating a big refugee community whose descendants remain very visible to date. Several Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebels were also trained and received support from Malaysia in their bid to establish a separate Bangsamoro homeland in the southern Philippines. Kinship ties, cultural affinity and bond of faith made Sabah a natural sanctuary across the sea for these Muslim Filipinos.
Despite the presence of the Philippine claim to Sabah, as a successor to the legitimate ownership rights of the Sultanate of Sulu, conditions of relative peace prevailed in Sabah to allow for its economic growth and development. It was during President Diosdado Macapagal and President Ferdinand Marcos that the claim was most actively pursued, after which the issue had become dormant.
After its inclusion in the Federation of Malaya, a move which was protested by the Philippines, Sabah became Malaysia’s second largest state and, with its rich forests and fertile agricultural lands, brought enormous revenues to the new country. Sabah is rich in timber, cacao and oil palm and presently produces 25% of Malaysia’s raw oil palm export. In fact, the disproportionately small cession fee relative to Sabah’s wealth is one of the longstanding complaints of the heirs of the Sulu Sultan first to the British then to the Malaysian government which continued the practice of making the annual lease payments.
Sabah’s fortunes attracted many Filipinos, as well as Indonesians, to work in the area, contributing to the state’s diverse ethnic mix. However, resentment grew towards recent migrants, especially those economic migrants or illegal immigrants who came without proper documentation. Negative stereotypes began to surface and Filipinos, whether long time residents or descendants of refugees, became the subject of discrimination.
Filipinos gradually became lumped together, regardless of their years of stay or the legality of their stay in Sabah. The lingering unresolved Philippine claim may have added impetus to this. In turn, abuses in plantation work, forced evictions and the manner by which many Filipinos were rounded up and deported back to the Philippines angered many including high Philippine government officials and the heirs of the Sulu Sultan. Many NGOs and local officials expressed their concern over the treatment of these undocumented workers and the descendants of the Sulu Sultan began to press Manila to take a more active stance in negotiating the Philippine claim with Malaysia.
The recent escalation of hostilities from the Tanduao village in Lahad Datu to the Simunul village in Semporna may provide a glimpse of an underlying current which can have the potential of engulfing northern Borneo in conflict. It may exacerbate cracks in the already tenuous demographic balance of Sabah, enhance the vulnerability of undocumented migrant workers and increase general resentment against non-natives, all of which can spiral out of control if not handled properly.
Filipinos may be further alienated and perceptions that they constitute a security threat may be reinforced. Recent deportations, on the other hand, may only exacerbate poverty in southern Philippines with loss of remittances and inadequate facilities to support the reintegration of these migrant workers. Thus, there is a pressing need to address the root causes of the dispute, instead of just being a reactive player in the unfolding events.
The recently concluded peace agreement between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front brokered by Malaysia may finally achieve the elusive peace in southern Philippines. However it also drew attention to the need for peace to be all-inclusive, with major stakeholders and concerned groups being involved in the consultation process. Some observers stipulated that the failure to engage the MNLF and the Sultan of Sulu in the peace framework sowed disunity among Muslim Filipinos and could have been a factor in the stand-off in Lahad Datu which regrettably ended in violence.
It is war that brought a deluge of Filipino refugees in Sabah, straining the state’s social services and creating socio-ethnic friction between native inhabitants and recent migrants. It is also war that brought a cycle of poverty, violence and lawlessness in southern Philippines, a traditional source and transit point for illegal immigrants and migrant workers to Sabah.
This raises the salience of peace as being a shared and common interest. Conditions of peace allow commerce to thrive, attract investments, and facilitate regulation of trade and movement of people, especially in the porous maritime borders of insular Southeast Asia. Improvements in coast guard capabilities and joint maritime patrols are only cosmetic remedies to the problem of illegal immigration to Sabah.
Sabah has a very long coastline that makes it difficult for even the most advanced navy or coast guard forces to monitor. There are nearly one million Filipinos in Sabah and large-scale deportation would create a humanitarian crisis in southern Philippines and a huge labor vacuum in Sabah. The non-discussion of the Sabah claim will only prolong the state of statelessness of many Filipino refugees in Sabah, uncertainty that can only sustain already brewing tensions. Legitimate historical grievances that persist to this day must be addressed to finally put to rest the ghosts of the past.
It is time that the Philippine and Malaysian governments sit down to discuss the Sabah issue seriously with the intent to resolve differences peacefully. Lasting regional peace and stability at both sides of the Sulu Sea may rest on this.
(The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent the official views of his affiliation.)
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is an MA Asian Studies student from the Asian Center, University of the Philippines. His research interests include Philippine-China relations, ASEAN-China relations, territorial and maritime disputes, and energy security. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read other articles by Lucio.