Operation Merdeka (1967), an alleged plan to infiltrate Sabah and annex it to the Philippines, may have resulted from a failure to reach a compromise solution on the Sabah issue after the creation of the Malaysian Federation. Fear of a well-entrenched deep-seated Malaysian position in the area which may put the Philippine position at a gross disadvantage if a final settlement is drawn may constitute another salient factor. When word about the plot came out in the media because of the Jabidah massacre (see footnote), the Philippine government came under fire from media, critics and local Muslim groups and an investigation was launched.
There are still disputes as to the authenticity of the Jabidah massacre and the circumstances surrounding it but President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino Jr., the son of the late Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Sr. who leaked out the Jabidah massacre to the press, acknowledged the incident and commemorated its 45th anniversary in Corregidor Island in March 18, 2013. But while Manila distanced itself from Operation Merdeka once it was publicized, Malaysia capitalised on it to justify its support for Muslim insurrectionist movements in Sulu and Mindanao. Since then, KL had devised a wily Mindanao strategy that it used as leverage in its dealings with Manila.
Seeing a hole
After news of the Jabidah massacre circulated, Malaysia began to fund, equip, support and provide training camps to Muslim rebels in Sulu and Mindanao. No less than MNLF leader Nur Misuari admitted that he, along with other comrades, received training from Malaysia. But even with Malaysian, not to mention Libyan and other external support, the rebellion went on with no sight of clear victory. War weariness set in and prolonged support to the rebels already became a burden to their sponsors. In 1996, a peace agreement was signed between the Philippine government and MNLF, although this did not stop the fighting as a new Muslim rebel group, the MILF, came into being.
Rightly or wrongly, Philippine involvement in Sabah may be explained by the Philippine claim to the area as a successor of the Sultanate of Sulu, but what would explain Malaysian involvement in Sulu and Mindanao other than destabilizing southern Philippines or undermining Manila’s control on this area. And this engagement with the Muslim insurgency in the south, not to mention the communist NPA, made the Philippines focused on internal security, a policy whose adverse implications are now strongly felt in the West Philippine Sea. Focus on addressing the local Muslim rebellion also afforded Manila little energy left to pursue its legitimate Sabah claim. Ending the rebellion by cutting off the rebels’ sources of external support also meant that the Philippine government would have to diplomatically engage Malaysia and Libya, among others.
What comes around goes around
Countries may be able to find justifications for intervention in the affairs of neighbours or other countries. But such actions come at a price and such price may not be exacted immediately but may come in the future, at times, when they are least expected.
The failure to end the Lahad Datu standoff amicably and the violence that ensued afterwards brought back the ghosts of the past for Kuala Lumpur. It exposed KL’s still tenuous foothold in Sabah despite years of contested administration. It also threw light on the significant support and sympathy expressed by the people of Sabah, notably the Tausugs and Sama-Bajau peoples, to the Sulu Sultan. These peoples resented their being treated as foreigners in the lands of their own forebears and took grudge on the failure of the recently Malaysian-brokered peace deal between Manila and MILF to engage the Sulu Sultanate and the Tausugs.
In reaction to Malaysia’s Operation Daulat against a small number of the Sultan’s followers – widely seen as an overkill - many MNLF members who felt aggrieved and duty bound to help their brethren besieged in Sabah reportedly slipped into Sabah to join the fighting. The ease by which these groups accomplished this feat exposes the difficulty of guarding a long coastline inhabited by peoples who criss-cross these artificial maritime boundaries for trade, visits and exchange since time immemorial. Muhajab Hashim, chairman of the MNLF’s Islamic Command Council, also pointed out that MNLF fighters “know the area (Sabah) like the back of their hand because they trained there in the past.” Now Malaysia is reliving the US experience in Afghanistan when the insurgents they supported against the Soviets eventually turned against them. If fighting continues or the roots of the problem were not addressed, can it not be said that Sabah will become Malaysia’s waterloo?
A by-product of Malaysia’s support for the Muslim insurgency in Sulu and Mindanao especially during the 1970s was the influx of Filipino refugees and economic migrants to Sabah fleeing for their lives and in search of better opportunities lacking in their war-torn hometowns. Aside from straining Sabah’s resources for social welfare, it also helped form the stigma of Filipinos as being a burden and a security threat to Sabah, an enduring perception that fuelled social and ethnic tensions in North Borneo. The recent Lahad Datu incident and the ensuing violent crackdown that followed it only heightened these tensions which could lead to more discrimination or persecution by the central government of the more than 800,000-strong Filipino community in the state, regardless of their political sympathies.
An unbiased peace broker?
Active Malaysian involvement in the Muslim insurgency of the past is one of the principal reasons why Kuala Lumpur’s peace credentials in the GPH-MILF peace process had been questioned and criticized by many groups. The unresolved Sabah dispute is another key factor that makes many question the impartiality of KL as a mediator. Critics maintain that Malaysia’s involvement actually undermines the entire peace deal altogether. To critics of Malaysia’s role in the Mindanao peace process, the recent standoff in Lahad Datu which unfortunately ended in violence had exposed the flawed choice of having KL as the mediator.
Instead of uniting the Bangsamoro people, Malaysia was seen as abetting the division of the Moro people by brokering a deal largely seen as favouring only one group, namely the Maguindanaons (which form the power base of MILF), while other influential groups, notably the Tausugs (the traditional power base of MNLF) and the Sulu Sultanate were not thoroughly involved. What would account to the falling out between MNLF and KL? Did Misuari became too independent and difficult to control? Did the Sabah issue to which the Tausug and Sama people strongly feel about played a role? As the peacemaker, why did KL not aspired for a more inclusive and comprehensive peace process that would take into account the aspirations of all major stakeholders?
Too much firepower can backfire
Malaysia’s reaction to the Lahad Datu standoff had been criticized by many human rights groups. While the original target was a group of only about 200 people, of which only about two dozen or so are armed, Malaysian response crystallized in Operation Daulat was seen as excessive – a combined land, air and sea assault and deployment of seven regular army battalions. Refugees arriving in Tawi-Tawi, Sulu, Basilan and Zamboanga spoke of abuses and human rights violations committed by Malaysian security forces in the course of their mopping up operations and rooting out alleged supporters of the Royal Sulu Army. Physical beatings, harassment, intimidation and threats were heard from traumatized Tausugs and Sama-Bajaus fleeing Sabah. If appropriate measures will not be put in place, Malaysian plans to relocate Sabah coastal villagers allegedly “prone” to infiltration may also be susceptible to the same abuses, such as forced eviction and forced resettlement.
In addition, Manila’s request for humanitarian missions and access to Filipinos caught in the conflict, including both suspected Royal Sulu Army members and supporters and innocent civilians, are still denied. Plus, it is very difficult to obtain reliable reports on the ground since independent press were not allowed entry.
While KL’s actions may address the immediate security risks posed by the few supporters of the Sulu Sultan, it may spur long-term negative backlashes. The most immediate are clamors against Malaysia’s role in the GPH-MILF peace process, a role contested by some at the onset but did not get much attention until after the Lahad Datu standoff. Why not a Scandinavian country or an Asian country which the Philippines does not have any outstanding dispute with? The Philippine government maintained that the recent Sabah conundrum will not affect the peace process, but considering the sentiments of those who felt left out in the process and the refugees arriving from Sabah, the upcoming referendum test for the KL-brokered peace framework will prove to be tough.
Malaysia’s tainted image in the Mindanao peace process may also not sit well with its role in ending the decades-old Muslim Malay insurgency in southern Thailand.
Finally, far from letting the dormant Philippine Sabah claim sleep another deep slumber, the recent Sabah issue will only add more pressure on Manila to take a more vigorous stance, not only in reviving, but more so in pursuing the claim through various legal and diplomatic means.
Interference in the affairs of other countries has its merits. But one should be prepared for its consequences. Will recent events compel KL to redraw its Mindanao strategy? Whatever contours or features this new stratagem may have, let us all hope that it will bring lasting peace to Sulu and Mindanao and a just settlement of the never-ending Sabah issue.
Footnote: The Jabidah Massacre was allegedly an attempt to silence restive Muslim youth recruits of Operation Merdeka. It was said to have taken place in Corregidor Island. It was exposed by the late Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino based on the testimony of its alleged lone survivor, Jibin Arula. The number of victims varies from 14 to 68 depending on the sources, while some sources still dispute the authenticity of the incident.
Lucio Blanco Pitlo III is a Research Assistant with the University of the Philippines Asian Center, where he is also pursuing his MA in Asian Studies. A shorter version of this article first appeared in Sharnoff’s Global Views last April 6, 2013 under the title "Malaysia: Playing the Mindanao card" http://www.sharnoffsglobalviews.com/malaysia-mindanao-002/