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Opinion

Can Maphilindo be revived?

FROM A DISTANCE - Carmen N. Pedrosa - The Philippine Star

Some good has come out of ISIS messing around in Mindanao. It was found out that the porous borders between the archipelagos of Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines are both boon and bane to its peoples. These were the open routes used by our early Malay ancestors as they traveled for trade and migration to each other’s lands. But it was more than that. We were related by a common culture until colonization separated us from those origins.

Suddenly we became aware of our ancient unity. With the threat of terrorists using those porous borders for their attacks, our three countries, all archipelagos, realized that something must be done to stop it. That is how it was decided to return to the original idea of ancient unity and cooperation. We can do more than just guard the porous borders. We now have the conditions to revive the concept of Maphilindo, a union of three countries Malaya, Philippines and Indonesia.

At that time, I was a young reporter for the Manila Chronicle infatuated with the suave diplomacy of personalities like Thanat Khoman and our own Foreign Affairs Secretary Emmanuel Pelaez. I saw and heard the indomitable Sukarno.

Those were the days for how to put together Malaya, the Philippines, and Indonesia into a confederation of Malay peoples. It came from an old idea of Jose Rizal, our national hero for which he was called the pride of the Malay race. The group would be organized as a nonpolitical confederation uniting the Malay race.

After Rizal, a plan was made for a united Malay nation by Wenesclao Vinzons during the Commonwealth government in the Philippines. He, too espoused a United Malay race which he called Malaya Irredenta. Malaya Irredenta was another name for Maphilindo. Like Rizal’s dream that Malays should be united, Vinzons dream was only that – a dream.

It was not until July 1963 when then  President Diosdado Macapagal of the Philippines convened a summit meeting in Manila to see how they could fulfill the dream. Maphilindo, from Rizal to Vinzons to Macapagal was an idea that had to be realized. It meant uniting three Malay peoples divided by colonialists. It was to be a regional association that would tackle common problems together.

It was a failed dream, broken even before it began because of differences and disputes. If they should indeed unite, it also had its dangerous consequences. One danger would be if Malaysia would include the Philppines and Indonesia to form the Federation of Malaysia. Manila had its own claim to Sabah (formerly British North Borneo), and Jakarta protested the formation of Malaysia as a British imperialist plot. The final nail was hammered when Sukarno adopted his plan of konfrontasi with Malaysia. Instead Sukarno organized the Communist Party of Indonesia or PKI. Then the Philippines has its own claim over the eastern part of Sabah (formerly British North Borneo), while Indonesia protested the formation of Malaysia as a British imperialist plot.

The PKI persuaded President Sukarno that the formation of Malaysia was a form of neo-colonisation that will later affect Indonesian stability.

But times have changed. With the threat of ISIS and pirates entering the SE Asian island nations, these are now compelled to bind together are now binding together. 

Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia have launched a joint force to combat the surge in hijackings. Reuters reported that Indonesian and Malaysian ships sailed together in an earlier campaign in the Malacca Strait to combat piracy and Islamist militancy that threaten regional trade and security. All three provided troops and ships in a common effort to guard the seas against hijackings and kidnappings.

Delfin Lorenzana, Philippine defence secretary in an interview with the Financial Times said he hoped the long-mooted campaign around the Sulu and Celebes seas would “keep the sailors safe and also prevent the movement of terrorists from one place to another” in an area with very porous borders.

“We believe now that some of those foreign terrorists?.?.?.?came to the Philippines through this back door – and Malaysia and Indonesia are aware of that,” he told the Financial Times. “They are also very concerned about the possible return of other nationals who are now fighting with Isis in Syria.” The trilateral force would aim to secure a safe passage for commercial ships, either under monitoring or with an escort, Mr Lorenzana said. Another part of the mission would be to recover hostages using drones and marines. Mr Lorenzana said while he did not have a full list of each country’s deployments, the Philippines had sent fast boats and helicopters. Malaysia’s navy chief has said the campaign will involve both air and sea patrols, with permission to pursue suspects into Philippine waters. Hishammuddin Hussein, Malaysia’s defence minister, pledged this year that a tri-nation military force would “shatter any dreams of a utopian Islamic caliphate establishing itself in the region,” Julie Bishop, Australia’s foreign minister said. She had warned last month that hundreds of south-east Asian fighters with Isis in the Middle East could return home and declare a caliphate in the southern Philippines. A spate of sea kidnappings in the region is suspected of being linked to Abu Sayyaf, a splinter group from the southern Philippines’ decades-old Islamist insurgency that is notorious for its violence and profiteering. The Philippines appealed this year for international help from the US and China in securing the Sibutu passage trade corridor, similar to the effort to combat piracy off the coast of Somalia.

Analysts say the three countries’ security forces are used to co-operating but have limited capacity to police the waters.

“Of the three, Malaysia is the best equipped,” said Ian Storey, senior fellow at Singapore's Iseas Yusof Ishak Institute. “The Philippines navy is practically non-existent. The question is one of capabilities: running patrols 24/7 gets expensive in terms of manpower and fuel.”

Other concerns include whether territorial disputes between the three countries would “get in the way of jurisdictional determinations and prosecuting the bad guys,” said Michael Frodl, founder of C-Level Maritime Risks, a Washington-based consultancy. He added that the “hunt on land” to round up pirates, kidnappers and terror suspects would have to be serious, or else the campaign would “be like hammering at something without an anvil.”

With these threats entering through the porous borders, it is expected that it may be the beginning of a revival of cooperative action between the three countries of Malay origin. And who knows perhaps Maphilindo will become finally a reality. It has ancient roots arising in modern times.

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