A new dimension has been added to the tense situation unfolding in Sabah after Moro National Liberation Front leader Nur Misuari warned Malaysia “not to harm our Muslim brothers or we might be forced to come to their aid.” Misuari’s warning came after a deadline set by Malaysian security forces was to expire yesterday, Friday. It has been two weeks since followers of the Sultan of Sulu crossed over to occupy the coastal town of Lahad Datu.
Malaysian security forces are gearing to attack, but weighing the consequences of a siege. Many of these uninvited newcomers have relatives in Sabah who came the same way—in outrigger boats across the waters. Though separated by the Sulu Sea, Sabah’s porous coastal border has failed to stop the wave of newcomers from Mindanao.
Somehow, the Sabah standoff has evoked memories of the 1968 Jabidah massacre.
For those too young to know about it, Jabidah was a secret military operation for the invasion of Sabah conceived by then President Ferdinand Marcos to assert the Philippine claim after talks with Malaysia failed. Sabah was handed over by the British to the Federation of Malaya despite protest by the Sultan of Sulu who claimed he never ceded Sabah to the British but merely leased it.
Marcos’ well-laid plan to sow unrest and start a rebellion in Sabah went awry when disgruntled Muslim recruits conscripted for the operation under Maj. Eduardo Abdul Latif Martelino tried to leave Corregidor Island where the secret elite army was training. Fearing the special ops might be compromised, the deserters (the number ranged from 28 to 60) were executed. The case became known as the Corregidor/Jabidah Massacre. The code name of the project itself was Operation Merdeka (Freedom).
A spoiler named Benigno Aquino, Jr. got hold of the lone survivor, Jibin Arula, and exposed the covert operation and the massacre of the Muslim recruits. Arula recounted how the young recruits were taken to the island’s airstrip and mowed down by machine gun fire. Although wounded, he jumped into the water and survived by clinging to a driftwood until Cavite fishermen rescued him.
The Jabidah massacre, some historians say, triggered the decades-long Muslim insurgency against the Manila government.
Marcos used the playbook of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba during the time of US President John F. Kennedy. Jabidah never got off the ground after Ninoy blew its cover. The Bay of Pigs landing by the Cuban expeditionary force composed of exiles and rebels opposing Fidel Castro’s communist regime failed and suffered heavy casualties.
The arrival of the Filipinos in the coastal town of Lahad Datu can hardly be called a military operation. Only a few of the estimated 300 “invaders” led by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III are reported to be armed. The intruders insist they have a right to stay in Sabah as it is their homeland.
To some, the situation may seem more like a case of a landlord wanting to raise the paltry rent being paid by its Malaysian tenants. Rental receipts shown by the Sultan of Sulu may have strengthened the country’s claim to Sabah. Why is Kuala Lumpur paying rent to the Sultan’s heirs through the Malaysian Embassy in Manila if it believes the validity of its Sabah claim?
Instead of the promised peace, the GRP-MILF peace agreement is spawning a ripple of unrest in Mindanao. MNLF decried it had been left out in the negotiations, yet. Misuari’s men were the ones who fought the Abu Sayyaf to free three foreign hostages while the MILF stepped aside. Did the government talk to the wrong party?
Followers of the Sultan of Sulu also feel marginalized they may lose ancestral lands to the MILF. It looks too early for PNoy to be patting himself on the back and promoting chief government negotiator Marvic Leonen to the Supreme Court.
Senator Antonio Trillanes, a re-electionist candidate of the ruling Liberal Party, is asking the government to explain its policy on Sabah and its timid stance on the Lahad Datu standoff. The former military man has shown some spine that he’s not going to be an Aquino acolyte in the Senate.
The President is in a bind since Malaysia, an ally in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, was the third party that helped broker the GRP-MILF agreement . Malaysia , the Philippines and Vietnam are together in the South China Sea territorial dispute against China.
The Aquino government is also working with Malaysia to bring back from Kota Kinabalu fugitive Manuel Amalilio who scammed Mindanao investors Aquino is under pressure to bring justice he himself had promised to Amalilio’s many victims.
But that, as they say, is another story.