In 1967, Operation Merdeka was initiated by the late President Ferdinand Marcos. The main objective was to annex Sabah for the Philippines. The legal basis of the operation was the claim of the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs to Sabah. The Sultan’s heirs insist that the resource-rich land still belonged to them. They believe that it was simply leased (pajak) to the British East India Company in 1878 and was illegally transferred by the British in 1963, when it became part of the Federation of Malaysia (watch this video to get one view of the complexities). The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, being citizens of the Philippines, gave then President Marcos the mandate to reclaim Sabah as part of the country.
The standing policy of the Philippines on Sabah is articulated in the Republic Act 5546 of 1968, which provides in Section 2: “The definition of the baselines of the territorial sea of the Philippine Archipelago as provided in this Act is without prejudice to the delineation of the baselines of the territorial sea around the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty.”
To achieve the objective of the Operation Merdeka, Tausug (Suluk among Malaysians and Tausug among Filipinos, literally meaning ‘People of the Current’) and Sama Muslims (Moros) were recruited and trained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Corregidor Island for specialised training in covert operations. The number of recruits differs ranging from 60, according to the Government of Philippines to more than 200 according to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Their order was to sabotage military installations and key infrastructures in Sabah for the subsequent invasion by the Philippines. At first, the recruits were unaware of their true mission. When they realised that their order was to infiltrate Sabah and fight fellow Muslims, they become mutinous. This prompted their military handlers to execute all of them and cover up the entire operation. Against all odds one of the recruit, Jibin Arula, survived to recount what happened.
As fate would have it, the late Philippine senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. (husband to the late President Corazon Aquino, and the father of the current President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III) exposed Operation Merdeka and the killing of the recruits. Although, the late senator condemned the massacre he never denounced the historical claim of the Sultanate of Sulu on Sabah. The incident generally referred to as the Jabidah Massacre has had wide ranging implications. Now President Benigno Aquino III is condemning the armed incursion of the followers of the Sultan of Sulu.
On the Malaysian side three things happened: first it created the impression that Malaysia can count on the Moros in case of a military conflict with the Philippines as the Moros were willing to disobey orders and risk being killed just to avoid fighting in Malaysia. Second, Malaysia realised that their best lines of defence against a Philippines annexation of Sabah were the Moros. Thus, training and equipping them to fight for a separate homeland became an implied state policy. In 1969, Tun Mustapha, a Tausug descent and the chief minister of Sabah at that time, facilitated the military training of Moros. With the help of Libya, who provided the financial assistance and military equipment, 90 Moros were trained in Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia. These Malaysian trained Moros called the Top 90 later become the core of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Third, the annexation of Sabah was only a distant possibility as long as the Moros will not cooperate with the Philippine Government. This thinking is reflected in the deployment of military bases within Malaysia. Most military personnel and bases are stationed in peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak with almost negligible numbers stationed in Sabah, reflecting the lack of threat coming from the area. These beliefs also created a porous border between Sabah and northern islands of the Philippines such as Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.
On the Philippines side, it crystallised the long simmering discontent among the Muslims in Mindanao (or Moros as they call themselves) into a secessionist movement. The Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) was organised in 1968 by Datu Udtog Matalam demanding the outright secession of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan regions from Philippine control. Leaders of MIM subsequently formed the Moro National Liberation Front in 1969 – the military wing of the secessionist movement headed by Nur Misuari. Then in 1977 due to ideological difference, the late Hashim Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a break-away group from the MNLF. The ensuing conflict between the secessionist groups and the Philippine Government cost the lives of more than 100,000 people and massive destruction to the economy and development outcomes, not only in the conflict areas but in the whole Mindanao region as well. It also tied the meagre resources of the Philippines into fighting the secessionist groups. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were unable to modernise (among several reasons) as most of the military budget were used in containing and fighting the secessionist threat. As a result, the military superiority of the AFP of the late 1960s over the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) is no longer the case these days. By far, the MAF is more advanced and modern than the AFP.
In a way, Malaysia managed to achieve its entire objective of neutralising the threat of Sabah annexation and ensure that the AFP is weakened, and that the AFP will not pose considerable threat in the event of future conflict – all of it by simply supporting the Moro secessionist movements from 1968 to 1972.
However, the cozy relationship between Malaysia and the Moros was shaken on 12 February 2013, when a group numbering around 300 claiming to be the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army lands in Lahad Datu village in Sabah, declaring they will not leave Sabah because it is their own homeland.
What had changed in the last 46 years? What pushed the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu to launch an armed incursion into Sabah? Who and what is working behind the scenes? And what is the ultimate implication of the Sabah incursion?
Although various agreements and treaties were signed by stakeholders on Sabah; the claim of the heir of the Sultan of Sulu and, therefore, by the Philippines remains open. On all counts, the question of who ‘owns’ Sabah had never been definitively and formally resolved.
According to the Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, the heir (one of many) of the Sultan of Sulu responsible for sending the contingent to occupy Lahad Datu, his men are returning to their homeland and that he also wants to open negotiations with the Malaysian Government for the increase of the rent paid for Sabah. The Malaysian Embassy in the Philippines is still paying a nominal ‘rent’ of 5, 300 ringgit (approximately US$1, 700) to the heirs of the Sultan – a payment that has remained unchanged for more than a century.
However, speculation with regards to the timing of the Sabah incursion points to some powerful individuals backing Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. Allies of ex-president Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo such as Norberto Gonzales, the former National Security Adviser and a good friend of the Sultan, are alleged by the Aquino Administration to have played a role. Nur Misuari, the MNLF chief, is also alleged to be one of the conspirators in the move to occupy Lahad Datu. Both men vehemently deny any involvement in the incursion. Nevertheless, they profess support for the claim of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
There were also allegations that Mr Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Opposition coalition in Malaysia was a conspirator in the Sabah incursion. Likewise, Mr Anwar Ibrahim has also denied vehemently any involvement. In turn, there were counter-allegations that Prime Minister Najib Razak was responsible for staging this incursion.
Most intelligent (not intelligence) analysis however points to preventing the final peace agreement between the MILF and the Philippine Government that is currently being completed in Kuala Lumpur as the main target of the Sabah incursion, while the fringe commentators argue that influencing the outcome of the general elections in both countries (May 2013 in the Philippine and by June 2013 in Malaysia) as the objective of the incursion.
In the Philippines, the Sabah incursion has popular support among Filipinos that can affect the outcome of the mid-term elections. This has prompted the Aquino Administration to do a balancing act of appeasing Malaysia and at the same time, not offending the Filipino voters, while in Malaysia, the strong handed approach of Prime Minister Najib Razak in dealing with the Sabah incursion is an attempt to garner popular support from Malaysians. The incident in Sabah could play into the Prime Minister’s hand as he attempts to gain more support in Sabah and Sarawak thereby affecting the overall results of Malaysia’s upcoming general election. Upon the call of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to stop hostilities in Sabah, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III declared unilateral ceasefire and asked Prime Minister Najib to reciprocate. Unfortunately, Prime Minister Najib rejected the call and continued the military offensive against the men of the Sultan. As of 12 March 2013, the death toll in the fighting stood at 62 killed (54 followers of the Sultan, and 8 Malaysian policemen). Talks of a negotiated pull-out of the Sultan’s followers are now underway.
Undeniably, the biggest losers in the Sabah incursion are the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos (estimated at between 800,000 to 1 million) living in Sabah and the hundreds of thousands more that depend on their livelihood across the porous borders, where the free flow of goods and labour are tolerated by both countries. The Sabah incursion will result in tighter border controls, expulsion and possible economic exclusion of Filipinos living in Sabah. Many Filipinos living in Sabah are already being repatriated to the Philippines.
Just like the Jabidah Massacre that became the battle cry for the secessionist movement in Mindanao, the Sabah incursion is now being used by certain quarters as a turning point: a point where the front have switched side; where the Moros are no longer the first line of defence against Philippine annexation of Sabah. Some quarters in the Philippines are now referring to the incident as the Sabah Massacre. They believe that the “rightful” landlords of Sabah are being victimised by the “tenant.”
The Sabah incursion cannot be simply dismissed as another armed incursion into Malaysia. Like the Jabidah Massacre it may serve as a catalyst for future conflict. Malaysia will soon realise this change among the Moros and will need to reposition its armed forces into Sabah as well as to reassess its policy in dealing with the Sabah question.
At this point in time, the Malaysian Government is in the position of strength to negotiate for a peaceful and definitive solution to the Sabah question. The Aquino Administration is not keen on pursuing the Sabah claim and it is beholden to the Malaysian government for brokering the peace deals with the MILF.
With the inevitable conclusion of the peace deal between the Government of the Philippines and the MILF, formally ending the secessionist movement in Mindanao, Malaysia can no longer rely on the Moros to provide the same buffer zone against Philippine’s possibility of annexing Sabah – a buffer zone that the Moros freely and unwittingly provided since the late 1960s.
All stakeholders including the various heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, the Malaysian Government and the Republic of the Philippines will have to sit down and resolve the claim once and for all. They cannot simply sweep the Sabah incursion under the rug and forget about it. Failing to settle the Sabah issue will create a mirage of peace and security that is waiting to be shattered.
In the future, if a more belligerent president in the Philippines emerges that is willing to reclaim Sabah, by all means necessary, just like the late Ferdinand Marcos; it could spell disaster for both countries. It is therefore imperative that the Sabah question is finally put to rest by formally and peacefully resolving it in all legal means possible.
Acram Latiph, from Mindanao, is a PhD scholar at the the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics, Australian National University. His thesis examines the causes of underdevelopment among the provinces of the Philippines with a special focus on the Muslim region of Mindanao.