Filipinos fleeing Sabah are flooding into Tawi-Tawi, overwhelming the resources of the province, and bringing with them horror stories about maltreatment at the hands of Malaysian forces. The stories have not been independently confirmed, but Malaysia has a record of dealing harshly with those it sees as threats to its national security. The horror stories have a ring of truth.
By several accounts, even women and children are being targeted in the continuing security crackdown by Malaysian forces in Sabah. The Malaysians, according to some reports, have explained that forces loyal to Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III are using women and children in resisting Sabah security forces. Even if this is true, however, this common tactic employed in armed conflict cannot justify the maltreatment of noncombatants, especially children.
The Philippines and Malaysia appear committed to a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Sabah and the maintenance of friendly relations. Deadly violence is fraying those long-standing ties, and putting at risk an estimated 800,000 Filipinos living peacefully in Sabah. The sultan’s supporters have killed eight Malaysian security forces so far – a toll that’s unusually high in a country used to decades of peace.
An indiscriminate crackdown, however, raises the risk of more attacks by the sultan’s supporters. The sultanate is staking a claim on what it considers its ancestral land. The claim cannot be dismissed offhand, since Malaysia continues to pay the sultanate an annual fee. The issue calls for sober discussion. Air bombardment and mortar shelling, which easily kill the innocent, and repressive measures can only fuel resentment and complicate peaceful resolution of disputes.