The Government of the Philippines (GPH) declared 18 March as Bangsamoro Day in commemoration of the struggle of the Bangsamoro for self-determination and to mark the anniversary of the Jabidah Massacre. No less than the president of the Philippines, Benigno Aquino III leads the ceremony in Corregidor Island – the first president to ever recognise the Jabidah Massacre. In his opening statement, he reminded everyone of the role played by his father and the Constitution in averting what could have been a bloody conflict between Malaysia and the Philippines over Sabah.
From a Cold War perspective, a full blown war between these two neighbouring countries was highly unacceptable. Both were closely allied with the ‘Western Bloc’ and were frontline countries in the fight against communism. This could be the reason why the United States did not support the late President Ferdinand Marcos in his Sabah claim. This would have weakened both countries making them more susceptible to communist influence. This was the United States strategy for containment in the prevailing paradigm of that period – the Domino theory – a belief that Southeast Asian countries would fall one by one into communism unless the West intervened.
Fortunately, the war over Sabah, between Malaysia and the Philippines, was averted. One key factor for the aversion of war, was due to the courage of the Moro recruits, who disobeyed orders and refused to participate in a war that may have resulted in the death of their fellow Muslims and relatives living in Sabah. The Moro recruits in Corregidor Island sacrificed their lives, and in turn saved the lives of hundreds if not thousands of Malaysians that may have died had Operation Merdeka continued. Ironically, the ensuing secessionist war in the Philippines sparked by the Jabidah Massacre resulted in the death of more than 120,000 people in Mindanao. Malaysia of course played a vital role in the formation and training of these secessionist groups.
History could have been different had the Moro recruits obeyed orders and pursued their goal of destabilising Sabah for eventual annexation by the Philippines. And the secessionist war in the Philippines, that has cost so many lives and untold economic damage, probably would have not happened.
It makes one wonder why Malaysia is seemingly unperturbed by what happened in Corregidor Island in 1968. It should be the Malaysians who should be commemorating the sacrifices of the Moro recruits and declare them heroes for foiling Operation Merdeka. This lack of appreciation of history is possibly one of the reasons why the handling of the ‘Sabah incursion’ has ended up in a bloody confrontation.
Undeniably, there is much to be desired on how both the governments of Malaysia and the Philippines have addressed the ‘Sabah incursion’. At the very onset both governments were aware of the alleged conspiracies of some powerful people that encouraged and funded Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to send his men in Lahad Datu. In spite of this, they still fell into the alleged conspirators’ trap. The knee-jerk reaction from both countries to make pronouncements without first assessing the impact of their statements escalated the tensions rather than diffused it.
The GPH merely echoed the Malaysian government’s sentiments and even reprimanded Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and his men – the Royal Sulu Army (SRA). Threats of arrests to those who went in Lahad Datu awaited them upon return. This pushed the SRA to the wall and left them without a ‘face-saving’ exit even before negotiations started.
Sensing that the GPH has abandoned its ‘responsibility to protect’ its own citizens – the SRA; emboldened Prime Minister Najib Razak to embarked on a military solution to the Sabah Incursion. The use of brute force to resolve the Sabah incursion hinged on political expediency rather than careful consideration. One can understand the use of force to resolve the Sabah incursion simply due to its popularity among Malaysians and with the looming general elections.
However, it makes one wonder why Prime Minister Najib committed the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) to use all necessary means to expel the SRA from Sabah in the absence of clear exit strategy. This lack of exit strategy on the Sabah conflict is based on the thinking that the MAF, with its overwhelming military firepower and numerical superiority, can easily prevail over the SRA numbering more or less around 200 men. Misplaced confidence of Prime Minister Najib that the overwhelming use of force will deter and serve as lessons for future incursion shows lack of understanding of the Moros and their history.
The MAF got a taste of what the Armed Forces of Philippines (AFP) had to contend with for the last 45 years of the secessionist war in Mindanao. To think that AFP had to fight insurgents numbering more than a thousand times larger than Rajamuda Agmuddin Kiram’s group, will convince anyone why President Aquino III is determined to end the secessionist war in Mindanao, and why he is beholden to the Malaysian government for brokering the peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The Malaysian policy, as it stands now, is to root out the RSA and the militarisation of the porous border between Sabah and the southern islands of the Philippines. In addition, captured members of the SRA are facing charges that impose a penalty of up to 30 years imprisonment and/or death for their incursion into Sabah.
Indeed, these actions send a strong message but it is highly unlikely to deter future incursions. Besides sustaining the current policy will cost tens of millions and massive military personnel to completely patrol and secure the Sabah borders with the Philippines. It will also curtail the trade that has long existed in the region long before Malaysia and the Philippines even existed.
The story of Hadji Kamlon, who fought the Philippine government from 1948 to 1955 provide some parallels on how to address the Sabah incursion. Rajamuda Agmuddin Kiram, who heads the RSA, roughly had the same number of men and faced the same odds. In the case of Hadji Kamlon, the Philippines spent millions of dollars and committed substantial military assets only to realise the futility of their quest to defeat or capture the Moro leader. Not until Hadji Kamlon was given a ‘graceful exit’, did he come out and finally surrender.
Even if the MAF prevailed against the RSA, it will only create a vicious cycle of violence in Sabah as relatives of those slain will bide their time to seek revenge. Future incursions into Sabah by RSA may even be bloodier and more devastating. The RSA could hit where it hurts the most, attacking soft targets with national significance like oil pipeline and public infrastructure.
Prime Minister Najib Razak can either “stay the course” of continuing the costly military solution to the Sabah incursion or he can learn from the Philippines experience which is clear: a negotiated settlement is always better than a military solution. And a “face-saving” agreement between parties is key to resolving the conflict. The Rajamuda Agmuddin Kiram, like Hadji Kamlon, may agree to some lenient penalty for his actions. But to demand unconditional surrender, he and his men would rather die in Sabah. To surrender is simply not part of their culture.
While the Malaysian government controlled media brands the RSA as terrorists, majority of the Filipinos revere them as heroes and patriots, who fought for their rights and what rightfully belongs to them. And their death in Sabah will serve as beacon for future would be RSA members.
Herein is the seed of conflict that may last for generations to come. It’s now up to Prime Minister Najib Razak and his advisers or the next leader of Malaysia on whether they want Malaysia to experience what the Philippines had undergone for the last 45 years of fighting insurgency or whether they want to end it peacefully through a more amicable solution that is acceptable to all concerned.
In the final analysis, it’s about time Malaysia and the Philippines revisit the Manila Accord and put the entire “Sabah Question” to its peaceful resolution.
Acram Latiph is a PhD student of the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics, Crawford School of Public Policy. His research is on the patterns of provincial development in the Philippines with emphasis on the development challenges faced by the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.