Sabah Insurgency: A Setback for Malaysia’s Role as Regional Conflict Mediator

March 17, 2013

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Sabah Insurgency: A Setback for Malaysia’s Role as Regional Conflict Mediator

Johan-Saravanamuttu_avatar-96x96by Dr. Johan Saravanamuttu* (March 15, 2013)

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 Najibstakeholder 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.

Bogus Sultan-Jamalul-Kiram-III.3But 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.

mahathir_mohamadIn 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.

9 thoughts on “Sabah Insurgency: A Setback for Malaysia’s Role as Regional Conflict Mediator

  1. Malaysia should be involved in seeking a peaceful solution to the Southern Thailand issue, but to do that job successfully we need the full cooperation of Thailand and those leaders in Southern Thailand. We have a vested interest in ensuring there is peace in our border with the Thais. That was the reason why brokered the deal between the Philippines and MILF. It is, however, unfortunate that Nur Musuari faction was not brought into the peace deal.–Din Merican

  2. “ is a bitter irony that the pendulum of internal conflict has swung from Mindanao to Sabah,..”

    Which brings to mind, a verse from William Blake’s ‘Auguries of Innocence’:
    A dove house filled with doves and pigeons,
    Shudders Hell thro all it’s regions;
    A dog starved at his Masters Gate,
    Predicts the ruin of the State.

    Nur Misuari-MNLF and the ‘Sultan of Sulu’ (whoever that is) were considered spent forces, and thus ignored in the ARMM treaty between MILF-PNoy, brokered by Malaysia. These flurs are known to be linked to the corrupt Arroyo faction – of the mess that is Pinoy politics. This is a conspiracy to do Noynoy Aquino in, during the forthcoming mid-term Senatorial elections using the Sabah claim. An unresolved foreign issue was most tempting! Thus, the MNLF and the ‘Suluk Royalty’ are at most audacious mercenaries, plain and simple – used as pawns for internal politicking.

    The unfortunate fall-out on Malaysia’s political environment is the ridiculous innuendos and surreptitious claims that the Opposition Leader gets caught in. The Deceit from a web of Lies. Which One of our most magnanimous Lembek UMNO Leaders have not met with the MNLF?

    Thus Tian Chua’s most unfortunate timing of a ‘Sandiwara’ statement.. This ‘Police Gummer’ ought to just keep his trap shut!

    Good to have you back. How was Tawi-Tawi? Tian Chua always loves to spat with the Police, but this time he could be punished under the Sedition Act. Opposition politicians should stop being accident prone.–Din Merican

  3. Tawi-Tawi, Dato? Like a rotten , ship-worm infested pier tottering and sinking into the mangrove swamp. Difficult flurs, but that’s becuz the trepang trade has gone down under. PRC now has aquaculture. So they are resorting to bombing the coral reefs – forget about pearl diving. Them folk having a hard time, as their essentials comes mostly from Sabah. Many of the other clans cursing that Kiram ‘tiga-suku’ fellow. The Bugis are horrified! Too much angst for proper sanity.

    So i wandered off to India to peruse the magnificent Taj Mahal, where i was accosted by rabid Sufi ‘saints’ and nearly lost a small fortune on charity. The rest they say, was history.. Kept in touch via 3-G, but didn’t feel like commenting, lest the Goons got a handle on my handle.. Heck, if we are ‘searched’ – you guys don’t know the meaning of getting ‘scanned’ and body searched day-in, day-out, even as you walk into your hotel lobby!

    Next destination is Damascus, to visit the Tomb. Will try to invite Tian Chua, but precondition is that we tape up his tongue to the roof of his mouth..

  4. The setback is caused by Philippines’ weakness as they not capable of taking care themselves like her Sulu peoples and Islamic insurgents, stirring up troubles with giant neighbor, China over South Sea China Sea issues etc, despite history taught them the bitter lessons,. They are still banking on advices and supports of US and Japan, the former colonial masters.

    Try to check Sulu history and the Chinese: They were and are still friendly since 250 years ago.

    It would not be surprised, Sulu peoples may one day seek helps from China if the Philippines gov cannot resolve the current Sulu militant conflicts with Malaysia’s Sabah.

  5. If you want to become a regional and later on an international player you must stop looking at issues from a single stand point . And please begin with religon.

  6. Huh? Say that again thumb logic? Forget about that preceding right always sino-phallic comment. His geopolitics is akin to a geoduck, which rich Chinapek engorge themselves on, for whatever reason.

    The problem with the Moro is the clannish behavior – they can’t develop and modernize – not only due to their version of archaic religiosity, but simmering blood feuds which have gone on for generations. The only time the clans and tribes unite is when there is a perceived ‘external’ threat. After that they continue to beat themselves up. Their economic sense is akin to rapine. They are in a cultural dead-zone, much like the hoary tribes in NW Pakistan and Afghanistan.

    Mindanao is loaded with mineral riches, timber, fair weather (except occasional typhoons) and rich soils, but no one wants to develop it due to the ever persistent internal sabotage and crime ridden landscape. It’s like a wild, wold East Carabao town. I wouldn’t recommend riding into sunset over there.

  7. For once I got to agree with you on the Tian Chua, CLF. Now the heavenly snake faction wanna create a ruckus on Pakatan over seat arrangement. No different as compared to hindraf

  8. You have put it right CL Familiaris “The problem with the Moros is their clannish behaviour”. The same goes to muslims across the globe esp. middle east, africa & pakistan,afghnistan. Some western journalis used to say “Muslim tribes in Afghanistan are considered to be in peaceful coexistence once they start shooting amongst themselves”.

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