CONFRONTED by a growing diplomatic crisis that has turned violent, President Benigno Aquino III last week all but rejected advice from one of his predecessors, former President Fidel V. Ramos.
In remarks to the press, the President turned down Mr. Ramos’ suggestion that he convene the National Security Council to deal with the Sabah crisis, which had already claimed the lives of up to 20 Filipinos, largely due to his administration’s inability to nip the problem in the bud.
Mr. Aquino’s response was typically cheeky: “If they have inputs that they want to share, former President Ramos in particular, I’m sure he can send it to me through a memo and we will consider it.”
In the spirit in which Mr. Aquino’s suggestion was given to Mr. Ramos, we offer here, for his consideration, our own memo, in the hope it will not “get lost in the bureaucratic maze.”
To: The President
Re: The Sabah crisis
The brewing crisis in Sabah, in which a small, armed contingent from the Sulu Sultanate is battling Malaysian security forces, can quickly spin out of control. Malaysian officials have reported 60 deaths so far, 52 of them Filipino combatants. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III contests these figures, saying his forces have lost only 10 men. He says many of the deaths may be Filipino non-combatants living in Sabah, where Malaysian forces have begun a security roundup. But such claims and counter-claims are to be expected, particularly in a guerrilla war, which this is shaping up to be.
Our recent failure to defuse the crisis early in the game highlights how we might do things differently going forward.
1. Do not make this issue about yourself. From the start, in your public pronouncements, you have made this personal. You publicly refused to speak with the sultan unless he withdrew his men in Sabah, a move that may have scored you some PR points for looking tough and resolute, but one that left the other side no room for maneuver or for saving face. We are not schoolchildren trying to show who can shoot higher on the schoolyard wall. Let us stop behaving as if we were.
2. Do not pour fuel into the fire, unless it is a conflagration you wish to create. At this stage, less rather than more fiery rhetoric would be constructive. With hindsight, it was probably not the wisest thing to ask the sultan’s followers to return to the Philippines and then threaten them in the same breath with arrest and prosecution. Your attack dogs in the Justice Department have continued in this vein, announcing to the world that they are “building an airtight case” against the sultan, rendering any appeals to stand down ineffectual and ultimately meaningless. And for goodness sake, with at least 10 Filipinos dead at the hands of a foreign power, do not refer to the conflict as “a propaganda war.”
3. Stop lawyering for the Malaysians. They may be your friends but they are guided by their own national interests, as we should be. As more and more Filipinos suffer the consequences of our own government’s failure in diplomacy, the last thing that your countrymen wish to hear out of your mouth is a defense of the Malaysian attacks.
This memo does not offer a solution – that is for you, as the leader of the Philippine nation, to work out. It merely offers advice on what more experienced national leaders might have already figured out by now. We are gladdened that you have professed an openness to receiving advice, and do hope you will heed it from time to time.