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Does Sabah merit Asean's attention?
Publication Date : 19-03-2013
The ongoing conflict in Sabah at first seemed something of a farce when followers of the Sultan of Sulu landed there with claims to the territory. But the situation has quickly developed into tragedy.
The death toll has passed 60, with losses on both sides. Kuala Lumpur's decision to deploy military and even air-force units, rather than adopting lower-key police and counter-insurgency operations, has come into question.
Philippine President Benigno Aquino III has urged Malaysia to exercise "maximum tolerance". Sections of public opinion in the Philippines have been much more critical. Some are calling for intervention to protect not just the small band of Sulu claimants but some 80,000 Filipinos estimated to reside in Sabah.
Does the Sabah conflict merit outside attention? Does Asean, as the regional group, have a legitimate role and sufficient tools to reasonably help the situation?
The historical claim to Sabah is longstanding but Manila has never seriously and consistently taken steps against Malaysian control.
Moreover, in the present situation, the two governments are acting much in agreement. As Malaysians force the Sulu claimants out from Sabah, reports are that Filipino naval forces have intercepted their vessels and taken armed men into custody while processing others who are fleeing.
The major reason for this cooperation is the Aquino administration's goal to bring peace to the country's long-restive South. Malaysia has been a key facilitator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and the Sabah developments seem aimed to postpone or even derail upcoming talks on a settlement.
There are, as such, good reasons for Asean to leave the situation to the two governments. Yet while discretion is useful, the regional group cannot completely disassociate itself.
Asean is creating a regional community in 2015, with pillars in security and politics. This incident serves as a reminder that what seems old historical baggage can suddenly turn into a flashpoint. This is not the only such problem in the region.
The Rohingya in Myanmar and the Thai-Cambodian border conflict over the disputed Preah Vihear Temple are ongoing issues. In the latter case, Asean in 2011 took an unprecedented step by offering to place observers to monitor the disputed territory.
Otherwise, Asean lacks specialised tools and personnel to broker peace and prevent conflicts from escalating. The group more often puts problems like the Sabah question on hold for many years rather than tackling and resolving the question once and for all. A role for Asean, moreover, is not always the first choice for the states involved.
In Thailand's restive deep south, Malaysia has been asked by the Thai government to help in talks with representatives of the Malay-Muslim majority in the region. In ongoing tensions between China and four Asean member states over claims in the South China Sea, the Philippines has brought a legal challenge against Beijing to an international tribunal.
Most states - not just in the region but across much of the world - wish to first deal with their own problems without external intervention. That calculation about Sabah might yet change, however, depending on how circumstances evolve.
One factor is whether the situation worsens, with an upsurge of causalities. There has been a large-scale influx of Filipino migrants into the state, and there is some danger that the current conflict could trigger anger more broadly, and not just among the small band from Sulu.
Another factor is whether the Malaysian response is judged to be reasonable and proportionate in accordance with international law and human rights standards. This is especially true as the Asean Charter upholds goals in human rights and promises more protection for the peoples of the region, and not just their governments.
But the third and perhaps key factor remains whether the Malaysian and Filipino governments continue to see eye to eye.
Some suggest that Malaysia's tough stance is motivated by Prime Minister Najib Razak's effort to gain kudos in the run-up to the general election. In contrast, President Aquino - although he has so far stood firm - faces mounting pressure to protect Filipino citizens, especially with senatorial elections coming up for his party candidates.
Asean has many issues on its agenda, from economic integration to thorny disputes such as those in the South China Sea. Provided that Malaysian actions are sufficiently constrained and the Aquino administration continues to cooperate, the regional group would do well to defer to the two governments and not visibly intervene.
Yet continuing attention must be given to the Sabah conflict so that Asean remains a relevant presence that, if circumstances shift, can be readily available.
Simon Tay is chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and associate professor at the National University of Singapore's Faculty of Law. Yap Kwong Weng is an associate fellow with the SIIA and a World Economic Forum Young Global leader.