Sabah standoff

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Sunday, March 3, 2013


THE standoff in Sabah took a turn for the worse yesterday with the reported clash between Malaysian security forces and the group of Filipinos led by Agbimuddin Kiram that occupied the village of Lahad Datu in Sabah since Feb. 11. Reports about the clash were still cloudy when I wrote this, but it seems like the Sabah standoff would end, if it has not ended yet, not through the use of diplomacy but through sheer force.

The international attention that the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of Sulu (Agbimuddin is his brother) attracted had me thinking this: How would have Jibin Arula reacted to this? Or for that matter President Noynoy Aquino’s father, the late Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr.?

Arula died in a vehicular accident in 2010 in Trece Martires, Cavite. He was 69. But he was 27 when he figured in a momentous event in the history of our country. In March of 1968, Arula miraculously survived a hail of bullets meant to silence him and his companions in what was later known as the “Jabidah massacre” in Corregidor island.

Ninoy was the then upcoming politician who used his journalistic instincts (he was a former reporter) to dig details of the incident and expose these in a privilege speech in Congress. That sparked a congressional probe on then president Ferdinand Marcos’s secret plot called “Project Merdeka” to invade Sabah.

Arula was among the young Muslim men trained by Marcos’s minions to destabilize and infiltrate Sabah, which was part of the old Sultanate of Sulu until colonial powers, specifically the United Kingdom, placed it under the old Federation of Malaysia.

The infiltrating force was called “Jabidah” which, according to journalists Marites Danguilan Vitug and Glenda Gloria (“Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao”), refers to “a stunningly beautiful woman in Muslim lore.” “Merdeka” is Bahasa Melayu for “freedom.”

The massacre of the 28 young Muslim trainees followed their raising of complaints regarding training conditions. They were brought into an airstrip in Corregidor and then shot, after which their remains and other pieces of evidence were thrown into the sea. The incident was widely considered to have sparked the Muslim secessionist movement in Mindanao.

“Project Merdeka” was supposed to solve the impasse over the ownership of Sabah in favor of the Philippines. And it would have been the most forceful assertion of our sovereignty over the resource-rich territory. The failure of the plot forced Marcos to change tack by seeking United Nations intervention. But presidents that succeeded Marcos have chosen to downplay the Sabah claim to gain close ties with Malaysia.

Which is not surprising considering geography. The Philippine government’s main concern in the past decades has been the security in its “backdoor.” Muslim secessionists in Mindanao, like the Moro National Liberation Front, were known to have sought refuge in Malaysia. Indeed, the peace pact forged by the Aquino administration with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front would not have been realized without Malaysian help.

Still, this has remained a delicate balancing act, as proven by the recent standoff in Sabah caused by the Sultanate of Sulu’s decision to send some its people to Lahad Datu. This incident should jolt the Aquino administration and prod it to come up with an effective strategy that would push the country’s Sabah claim (and ease the worries of the Sulu Sultanate) while maintaining good relations with Malaysia.

(twitter: @khanwens)

Published in the Sun.Star Cebu newspaper on March 03, 2013.

Opinion

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