Leaders of ASEAN during the opening of the 21st ASEAN Summit in Phnom Penh

The recent incursion into Sabah of more than 200 armed groups styling themselves as the Royal Army of the Sultan of Sulu has put another challenge to ASEAN’s claim to its centrality in the region.

There seems to be consensus that the Sabah conflict has become another flashpoint that has broader regional security implications for members of ASEAN. Yet while the regional organisation has trumpeted its ‘central role’ in maintaining peace, security and stability in a region which has experienced both internal and intra-member conflicts since post-independence, it is has so far been ‘silent’ on the Sabah crisis. The United Nations through Ban Ki Moon issued a statement two weeks after the incursion urging parties to end the violence through dialogue and to seek a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Member countries were more adamant in not expressing their views with the exception of Indonesia’s President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono who remarked during a state visit to Hungary on 6 March 2013 that a diplomatic approach must be pursued in the future and called on ASEAN’s current chair, Brunei Darussalam, to take a proactive move to resolve the conflict peacefully.

There are two ways to interpret ASEAN’s lack of visibility in the Sabah crisis. One is that there is no willingness among member countries to ‘regionalise’ the conflict and a preference for treating it purely as an internal security matter primarily for Malaysia. In this way, the principle of non-interference on sovereignty is maintained. The fact however that the conflict involves cross-border actions and personalities from Malaysia and the Philippines belies its characterisation as an ‘internal’ matter. However, this is also indicative of an evolving pattern following the failure to reach a consensus on the South China last year, and the muted statements of ASEAN involving the skirmishes between Thai and Cambodian forces at the Preah Vijear temple in 2011.

But while these previous events showed member countries actually expressing their divergent positions, the Sabah crisis suggests that there is actually an agreement to be ‘invisible’ and ‘silent’. This is partly explained by the second reason: the involvement or appearance of a group of ‘non-state’ combatants in this state of affairs that caught ASEAN by surprise or at least off-guard – given that ASEAN has precisely excluded such actors from its architecture. Either way, it means that ASEAN does not have a regional mechanism in place to address issues involving non-state actors, particularly when they are embedded in inter-state security issues. ASEAN explicitly declares itself to be an ‘intergovernmental organisation’ and its dispute settlement mechanisms have no place for private individuals or groups, except when they involve investors. In this sense, there is no way for the Sultan of Sulu to be recognised as a ‘proper party’ to the dispute under ASEAN mechanisms, and hence the hesitation by ASEAN to recognise the crisis as this may lead to indirect recognition of the Sultan. On the other hand, the Sultanate of Sulu could not invoke ASEAN assistance or mediation, particularly when they have authorised the Philippine government to negotiate their claims with the Malaysian government. As it is, the Philippine government has over successive regimes following the 1968 Jabidah Massacre, either neglected or refused to revive the Sultanate claim to Sabah.

The question remains however whether ASEAN has responsibility to take on the Sabah crisis. The raison d’etre for ASEAN in 1967 was precisely to foster peace and security in a troubled region, the context of which is the existence of disputes among member countries brought about by arbitrary settlement among the colonial powers of their former colonies’ territorial boundaries. The Sabah crisis has its roots in post-independence settlement, and even long before that – and this is a reality that has not been altered by the formation of the Malaysian or Philippine states. As Acram Latiph correctly observes, people in Sabah and Sulu have close historical and ethnic affinity, and have long enjoyed freedom of movement across the borders. That will soon change as both governments begin to tighten their border security. This will have serious repercussions for people who depend on the porous borders for their livelihood and enjoyment of family connections, as well as the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers working in the mines and plantations in Sabah. Economic development and migrant workers are high on the agenda of ASEAN integration and the failure to resolve the Sabah conflict could only exacerbate existing unrest and provide a catalyst for further violence and instability. As pointed out by Indonesian President Yudhoyono, the Sabah conflict is a sensitive issue and added that ‘We must not be indifferent to the problem’.

ASEAN’s ability to resolve disputes in the region has increasingly been questioned – ever more so, its claim to ‘centrality’. Not only is its credibility being eroded by its repeated failure to adopt a common position on sensitive security issues such as the Sabah crisis but it is also creating a precedence of a policy of avoidance. This does not bode well for its much-touted ASEAN Community and its ability to address critical security issues affecting the region. It also creates an impression that the kind of ASEAN integration conceived by ASEAN and its technocrats may not be same concept of integration envisioned by the people in Sulu, Sabah or in other communities in Southeast Asia. The Sabah crisis also highlights the appearance of ‘non-state’ actors in regional security concerns with which ASEAN, given its restrictive processes and mechanisms, is unable to deal. To brand the Sultanate army as ‘terrorists’ is an easy way out but will not solve the problem. It is one issue that will not soon disappear but will continue to haunt the region and ASEAN.

Imelda Deinla is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Regulatory Institutions Network, Australian National University.