March 17, 2013
Sabah Insurgency: A Setback for Malaysia’s Role as Regional Conflict Mediator
The month-long crisis in Sabah, which has seen an incursion of rebel fighters from the Philippine island of Sulu into Malaysia’s northern-most state on the island of Borneo, is a stark reminder that Southeast Asia remains engulfed in unresolved territorial disputes and conflicts.
Malaysia has been deeply involved in several of these conflicts as both a stakeholder and a mediator. The Sabah crisis now presents Malaysia with a thorny domestic security challenge that also has implications for its regional role.
As a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia has so far subscribed actively to the ASEAN principle of “pacific settlement of conflicts” espoused in the organization’s 1976 Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, of which Malaysia was a founding signatory. Malaysia played a major role, as both host and mediator, in the negotiations that recently brought the conflict in the southern Philippines to a peaceful resolution.
On October 15, 2012, after 15 years of negotiations and 27 rounds of talks in Kuala Lumpur, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front signed a comprehensive peace accord establishing a political settlement to the Islamic insurgency in the Muslim-majority region of Mindanao.
Malaysia also recently agreed to help try to broker an end to the conflict involving Muslim insurgents in four provinces in the deep south of Thailand. In a state visit to Malaysia on Feb. 28, 2013, Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed to begin talks in Kuala Lumpur with the “Barisan Revolusi Nasional” (“National Revolutionary Front”), the main Muslim group involved in southern Thailand’s conflict.
In the past decade, Malaysia has also peacefully resolved external territorial disputes with both Indonesia and Singapore. Indonesia took a dispute over the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan off the Sabah coast to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), which in 2002 deemed the islands to be Malaysian. Singapore and Malaysia settled the dispute over Pedra Branca, called Pulau Batu Puteh in Malaysia, in 2008, again through the ICJ, with Singapore retaining the island.
Malaysia still has claims in the Celebes and South China Seas involving other Southeast Asian states and China. In all these instances, Malaysia has maintained a stance of peaceful conflict resolution and, where expedient and possible, has brought matters to international arbitration.
As an internal conflict with an external dimension, the current crisis in Sabah constitutes a hybrid case of the region’s conflicts and territorial disputes. When Sabah was included into the new Federation of Malaysia in 1963, Manila maintained that Sabah belonged to the Philippines instead. However, after a U.N. observer team ascertained that the majority of Sabah’s people supported joining Malaysia, the Philippines stopped pressing its claim, though no Philippine government ever formally rescinded it. Over the years, the dispute was shelved due to good relations between the two states.
But in the current crisis, a century-old sovereignty claim over Sabah has been revived by Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed sultan of Sulu, an autonomous Philippine island province in Mindanao that historically included the area of north Borneo now known as Sabah. Kiram says that his ancestors merely leased and did not cede the territory to the British in 1878.
On February 12, more than 200 fighters of the self-styled “Royal Sulu Sultanate” landed in Malaysia, near the southeast Sabah coast, and holed themselves up in a nearby village, ignoring calls by Philippine President Benigno Aquino to return home.
In Malaysia’s initial Police response, 12 armed men were killed along with two Malaysian Policemen. Malaysia then conducted air strikes on the village and sent in some seven army battalions, killing 32. Other incidents occurring nearby left five Malaysian policemen dead. At the time of writing, the Malaysian authorities have rounded up almost 100 intruders and the death toll has reached 63, including two Malaysian soldiers, making the crisis the most serious military action involving Malaysian forces since the communist insurgency of 1948-1960.
More ominously, Malaysia, a promoter of regional conflict resolution for Muslims, is for the first time engaged in a shooting war with Muslim insurgents within its own territorial boundaries.
With the initial standoff having given way to a series of one-sided skirmishes, the Sabah situation risks becoming an internal Malaysian insurgency, with the Tausugs — the main ethnic group from Sulu in the Philippines, where they are known as Suluks — as the principle protagonists. The crisis is further embedded in the fluid character of local politics in Sabah, where large numbers of the population are Muslim.
In recent hearings held by a Malaysian Commission of Inquiry on illegal immigration in Sabah, it was revealed that Kuala Lumpur had awarded Malaysian citizenship to hundreds of thousands of Muslims from the southern Philippines for the sake of gaining an electoral advantage for the ruling party, the United Malays National Organization (UMNO).
For years, UMNO has considered Sabah to be a “fixed deposit,” safely delivering 24 seats to the ruling coalition in the 222-seat national parliament. The large Filipino Muslim population in Sabah that helped deliver these seats in the past could now turn against its former protector and patron, with implications for the UMNO’s supremacy in national politics in the general election that must be held by late-June.
Given Malaysia’s prized role as regional peacemaker, it is a bitter irony that the pendulum of internal conflict has swung from Mindanao to Sabah, with the gloomy prospect of the Malaysian government facing a long-term low-intensity war with the Suluks and their supporters. That would not only represent a disruptive distraction in the run-up to the general elections, but also a huge blow to Malaysia’s role as a promoter of regional conflict resolution.
Dr.Johan Saravanamuttu is a Visiting Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore.