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Opinion

Asymmetrical warfare

SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan - The Philippine Star

They may look like a quixotic ragtag bunch and several of their suspected “ringleaders” are now under investigation by the government, but it looks like supporters of the Sulu sultanate have achieved their objectives in their little “excursion” in Sabah.

One obvious objective is to put the spotlight on the sultanate’s claim to what was once called North Borneo. In the past weeks, Filipinos have become aware that the country has a “dormant” claim and that Malaysia is actually paying an annual fee to the clan that claims ownership of Sabah. Never mind if the amount is a piddling 5,300 Malaysian ringgit; the fact that it has been paid religiously for over a century, even if with no adjustment for inflation, bolsters the sultanate’s claim.

Another apparent objective of the excursion, which no one will publicly admit, is to remind the Aquino administration that the Sulu sultanate and its friends in the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) identified with chieftain Nur Misuari cannot be excluded from the ongoing peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

President Aquino is reportedly infuriated that the crisis in Sabah seems to be the handiwork of certain elements out to sabotage the peace process with the MILF.

The process would have stalled at some point anyway if it permanently left out the MNLF, which signed its own peace treaty with the government in 1996. Looking for allies, Misuari found a good one in another marginalized group, the Sulu sultanate.

It’s understandable that the sultanate’s letter to President Aquino disappeared in the bureaucratic maze. Honestly, how many of us Filipinos even knew Southeast Asian royalty still existed in our midst? The sultanates of the region, as far as ordinary Pinoys are concerned, belong to ancient history.

So at the start of the P-Noy administration, when there was a mountain of job applications and recommendations and political chips being cashed in at Malacañang, someone at the Palace opened the sultanate’s letter, saw an unrecognizable family crest or seal, read a florid introductory greeting and saw an unfamiliar name staking a claim on Sabah, described in modern times as a Malaysian state.

It’s surprising that the letter did not end up in the trashcan pronto.

The ignominy of being belittled and ignored might not have erupted into the Sabah excursion if the framework agreement with the MILF had not been finalized (with Malaysian mediation), with the sultanate and the MNLF forgotten.

*  *  *

In fact there have been efforts, under the auspices of another foreign government, to bring the MNLF into the peace process with the MILF.

Apparently, the efforts weren’t enough. The reported clashes in Sulu between the Abu Sayyaf and a rogue MNLF faction identified with Misuari, ostensibly to free foreign hostages, should have sounded alarm bells.

Even military officers observed later that the reported clashes in Sulu looked mostly like acoustic warfare, staged by people who were kulang sa pansin or out to grab attention. With dozens of fighters reported killed, no corpses were turning up, even in shallow graves, according to security officers.

Acoustic warfare cannot be sustained, and public attention is fleeting. Another headline-grabbing incident was needed.

And so we have Lahad Datu.

Although armed, the group that holed up in the coastal town of Sabah didn’t seem to be threatening residents. But their claim of owning Sabah was threatening enough for Kuala Lumpur, whose political leaders are preparing for elections in June.

Malaysian patience for the Lahad Datu “invasion” ran out in just three weeks – a short period by Pinoy reckoning. Kuala Lumpur unleashed superior firepower on the sultan’s ragtag band. The impatience must have been partly fueled by Manila’s own – as expressed by no less than P-Noy himself, who also had 800,000 law-abiding Pinoys residing in Sabah to worry about.

As the Americans (and the French) have found out, however, superior firepower is not a decisive factor for victory in asymmetrical warfare. You can pulverize a gnat with an M203 and still not win the war.

*  *  *

Now Pinoys know that self-determination for Sabah, wherein residents decided in 1963 to be part of the Malaysian federation, was done through consultations with elected representatives rather than direct referendum. Malaysia insists that the process satisfied the “fresh approach” for self-determination provided by the United Nations. The Philippines and Indonesia refused to recognize Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah in 1963, with Manila reserving its claim.

Today Malaysia insists that the 5,300-ringgit annual payment to the Sulu sultanate is cession fee rather than rental. Why didn’t the sultanate ask for a one-time, lump sum payment from Malaysia’s colonizers the Brits if the deal was for cession? Spain ceded the Philippines, plus Guam and Puerto Rico, to the United States for a lump sum payment of $20 million – a lot of money at the time, although still bargain-basement for three territories.

Among the things that the Sabah incident has done is to bring alive the Philippines’ “dormant” (as described by P-Noy) claim. The timing may be awful for P-Noy and his peace initiative, but he can no longer put the issue back to sleep.

This is not an ugly boil that will go away by and by. With all those deaths, from Malaysian air assaults and artillery shelling aimed to whom it may concern, the Sabah issue will be a festering wound, creating deep discontent that could erupt into more violence in both Sabah and Mindanao. That’s bad news for the peace process with the MILF.

Malaysians have been criticized for calling the sultan’s forces “terrorists.” The tag could prove self-fulfilling.

The Malaysians are striking back blindly, hitting even the innocent. With thousands of people feeling that they are victims of Malaysian overkill in Sabah, and feeling abandoned by the Philippine government, it’s possible that the seeds of extremist violence are being sown.

 

vuukle comment

ABU SAYYAF

AS THE AMERICANS

CLAIM

KUALA LUMPUR

LAHAD DATU

MALAYSIAN

P-NOY

PRESIDENT AQUINO

SABAH

SULTANATE

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