Intense contestation and intimations of cohesion-A A +A
Friday, March 8, 2013
WHAT is a Filipino to make of, and consequently do, in light of the unfolding situation in Sabah? The standoff that started on March 12 has escalated into full-blown skirmishes to the point that the United Nations called for the stoppage of violence and adherence to international human rights standards. An estimated 52 members of the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III as well as eight Malaysians were reportedly killed. Both camps claim to have captured elements from the other side.
Beyond the military confrontation there is concern over the consequences: the effects on the civilians in Sabah, the anticipated backlash on the Filipino population there (a significant number of whom are undocumented), the implications on future efforts to win the claim, and negative upshots on the Bangsamoro peace process given Malaysia's role in it.
There are Filipinos who are disinterested. Many after all, are unaware of the historical claim of the Sulu Sultanate over North Borneo since the Sultan of Brunei ceded it in recognition of the former's role in quelling a rebellion in 1704. Some that are aware are not resolved about it.
After all, there had been numerous agreements and maneuverings- some involving the Sultanate, others excluding it - concerning the territory. Among the most known is the lease agreement between the Sulu Sultanate and the British North Borneo Company in 1878 and the revocation of the same by the reigning Sultan Muhammad Esmail Kiram effective 1958 (Quezon III, 2013). The colonial powers that got involved in contesting sovereignty or access to North Borneo over nearly three centuries included the Spanish, British, Dutch and the French.
Less known is the detail that "heirs of the Sultan of Sulu ceded sovereignty rights over Sabah to the Philippine Government" in 1962 (UP Law Center, no date cited by Quezon III, 2013). Acting Foreign Secretary Salvador P. Lopez accepted the cession and transfer of territory on behalf of the government (Quezon III, 2013). Meantime North Borneo became one of the components of the Federation of Malaysia when it was established in 1963. In the 1980s the Marcos administration renounced claim to Sabah. However, even Malaysia viewed the statement as "just a verbal announcement of the Philippines" (Tolentino, cited by Quezon III, 2013)
A more contemporary manifestation of the long history of contestation is the ongoing succession challenge within the Sultanate itself triggered when Sultan Jamalul Kiram II died in 1936 without a clear heir. At least three parties are claiming to be the Sultan. The other two claimants have already distanced themselves from the violence in Sabah.
What about the people of Sabah? The sentiments of the more vocal Sabahans are that they want to stay with Malaysia. A petition going the rounds in Sabah was quoted in the media as saying that they "respectfully and permanently reject" the Sultanate's claims as it is "irrelevant to modern-day Sabah."
And now the Philippine government is said to be readying charges against those involved. There too is the possibility that they would be brought to Malaysia to be held accountable.
The overall response of the Philippine government to the situation has prompted Raja Muda Agbimuddin, the brother of Sultan Kiram who led their followers to Sabah, to say "parang hindi kami Filipino kay Aquino". There is even one view that the conflict in Sabah is one that concerns only the followers of Sultan Kiram III and Malaysian authorities.
What are Filipinos to make of and do; quite a quandary indeed. No wonder that some Filipinos seem not to be able to take a stand about the situation.
Complex situations can have a paralyzing effect when we are unable to sort things out enough to establish a course of action. (Makes one wish that one of the life skills they'd teach and ingrain in schools would be the ability to hold complex and even conflicting ideas in our heads and not be debilitated.)
Nonetheless there are still some things we should stand for even if we cannot reduce the Sabah issue to a simple conclusion and solution. We should stand for the protection of rights in situations of violence; in particular we should ensure that civilians are not harmed whether they be Sabahans or Filipinos in Sabah.
We should insist that our government exhaust efforts to bring home those who are involved in the debacle and not stand aside as the military solution of the Malaysians plays out.
They may be misguided but the followers of Sultan Kiram III are acting on a claim that the Philippine State has fumbled. The Sultan's followers will have to be accountable for their actions yes, but they should not be abandoned and left to die and languish in contested land.
Most of all, we should strive to not let the situation, no matter how it unfolds, further strain the fragile sense of cohesion in Southern Philippines where identities are still viewed as competing rather than being multiple, a prime example being the claim of a few that they are Muslims and not Filipinos.
The point being even if one is not convinced that Sabah is Philippines, there are Filipinos there who are, and they are currently feeling the pressures of the Malaysian military. They have said they are Filipinos, who are we to doubt that and withhold our assistance?
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Published in the Sun.Star Davao newspaper on March 09, 2013.