There is a tragic congruence between the conflicting initial reports of casualties in limited clashes in Lahad Datu, Sabah, between the “Royal Army” of Jamalul Kiram III, heir to the historical Sultanate of Sulu, and Malaysian security forces, which greeted us Saturday, and the equally convoluted history that led to it. The incursion has reignited sovereignty claims and disputes between the Philippines and Malaysia which have erupted since Malaysian independence and the Diosdado Macapagal Administration in the 1960s, but which succeed disputes during the American, Spanish, and British colonial eras in both countries. Whether one looks back five years, 40 years, or three centuries, legacies of colonialism, post-colonial nationalism, insurgency and regional conflict, have combined to present a classic Catch-22 situation to the Philippines and Malaysia. And there are no easy solutions.
There are at least two competing narratives driving the Sabah dispute: claims by the British that Sabah had been ceded to them by the then Sultan of Sulu; and the claims of the Sultan himself that he had merely loaned Sabah to the British. This dispute would be passed down from that generation, to Philippine and Malaysian independence and beyond, with no clear resolution or satisfaction. Disputes remain over the fees paid to the Kirams by the Malaysian government (the former say it is a “rental” fee; the latter, a “cessation” fee), and the credibility or at least applicability of a 1963 United Nations-brokered referendum that Kuala Lumpur claims legitimized its claim of sovereignty over Sabah, generating enough heat to roil diplomatic relations.
The formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was motivated in part by the need to simmer down territorial conflicts before they erupted into economy-damaging wars, potentially dragging other regional countries and global powers into the maw—which could have happened had Operation Merdeka, President Ferdinand Marcos’ abortive plan to infiltrate Filipino agents into Sabah, pushed through. (As it was, the massacre of those agents, the Jabidah Massacre, helped spark the Moro insurgency in Mindanao.)
One thing remains both clear and paramount among these conflicting narratives and competing facts. Even without a war breaking out between Manila and Kuala Lumpur (a very unlikely scenario), the events of the past few weeks threaten to reignite the Sabah dispute into a major diplomatic obstacle between our two states. Worse, unrestrained nationalist sentiments in both countries could lead to resentment (if not hostilities) between peoples—not governments, peoples, hints of which we have begun to see in the comments left on Philippine and Malaysian news sites and in social media.
Then there is the complication to the peace process to consider. The Bangsamoro Framework Agreement is a major step towards peace in the South, but the actions of the followers of Jamalul Kiram III have revealed how the history of competing narratives and unresolved claims can still drive conflict, insurgency, and other extra-legal action. The peoples of Mindanao must continue to walk down the path of peace, if the island is to have a bright future. Still facing them are major grievances of wealth sharing, security, political representation, and local rivalries and grudges, that have at times intersected with the Moro insurgency. Even the Bangsamoro agreement, which as its name implies is a framework for the remaining negotiations and efforts leading to the final peace agreement, is not designed to resolve everything in one stroke of a pen—and certainly not the Sabah dispute.
There was a reason that the decision was taken, after Merdeka, Jabidah, and Marcos’ fall, to simply leave the issue dormant, that there were dangers attendant to the claim. Should the dispute turn ugly, it will have unwelcome consequences for the Philippines, Malaysia, and our major regional and global allies. It could undermine the mutual non-intervention foundations of Asean, threatening the organization’s integrity in the face of Chinese territorial ambitions, and that country’s growing rivalry with the United States. Other countries might be forced to take sides, or at the least distance themselves from Manila and Kuala Lumpur for the duration of the dispute. Our growing economy would be harmed by prolonged conflict, particularly if it turns violent (again, even if short of war).
We pray that such a worst-case scenario would not come to pass, now or in the future. But the truth is that the Sabah dispute may never be satisfactorily resolved, certainly not within our lifetimes, without grave diplomatic consequences. The Philippines’ claim to the territory remains (dormant or not), but so do the rest of our diplomatic, security, and economic priorities. In the wake of the past few weeks, the priority of the moment is the need to first reestablish trust—with Malaysia and, yes, with the Sultanate of Sulu. It is through this trust that we hope to work with the followers of Kiram for a solution to their grievances through more productive, less dramatic means. It is through this trust that we hope to restore status quo ante with Kuala Lumpur, so that if we do discuss Sabah in the future (and perhaps we should), it will be in an amicable, respectful atmosphere, between peoples as well as governments.
Our mutually tangled histories, whether as the countries of the Philippines and Malaysia, or the former colonies of Britain, Spain, and the United States, or the pre-colonial Sultanates of Sulu and Brunei, need not doom our shared futures.
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