ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
Win-win solution needed for Sabah issue
Publication Date : 02-03-2013
I certainly agree with President Benigno Aquino III that the standoff in Malaysia must end. (The stand-off ended before noon yesterday after an assault by Malaysian security forces, according to reports quoting the Malaysian ambassador.—ED.) But it must end with all sides holding their heads high, honour and dignity intact (a win-win solution, former President Fidel Ramos would call it). As it is now, unfortunately, it looks like two sides are being made to back off, tail between legs. And that is not acceptable.
Which is why I do not agree with Aquino's lecturing the Sultan of Sulu on what a leader should or should not do, or subjecting him to threats of retribution (prosecution for possible violation of the Constitution and laws) as well as emotional blackmail (holding over his head the fate of “hundreds of thousands” of Filipinos whose livelihoods are jeopardised). Is it any wonder that the Sultan of Sulu remains defiant? Who wants to withdraw with tail between legs? At the same time, it must be pointed out that if 800,000 Filipino workers were terminated as a sign of Malaysia’s displeasure, Malaysia would be shooting itself in the foot. Such an action would wreak havoc on Malaysia’s economy, not just ours—at least temporarily in both cases.
And which is why I tend to sympathise with Fr. Eliseo Mercado of Notre Dame University when he replies, in answer to queries about who is advising Aquino on the Sabah issue, that because of the tone and content of the President’s official statement, the adviser would have to be Malaysian or Malaysian-Filipino, and might even be the Malaysian prime minister.
And this is as good a time as any to (respectfully) point out to Aquino that while he had “just been made aware that a letter” to him from Sultan Kiram was sent during the first weeks of his (Aquino's) term—which did not get to him because “we were organising the government” and it was “lost in the bureaucratic maze”—his underlings must have failed (again) to show him another letter sent by Kiram. This one is dated Oct 15, 2012, and, I am told, it was neither acknowledged nor answered. Was this letter also lost because of organisational problems or the bureaucratic maze? And, in any case, isn’t an apology called for, rather than the high-handed “I have just been made aware…. Let me make clear that there was no intention to ignore your letter….”? What is to be gained by treating Kiram in such a fashion (like dirt)?
Can there indeed be a win-win solution? Former President Ramos seems to think so. He points out to me that my recollection was incorrect when I said he was in favour of renouncing the Philippine claim to Sabah. What he wanted, he says and writes, was to put the issue and similar problems on the “back burner,” and instead concentrate on this “win-win” solution: the BIMP-Eaga, short for Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines-East Asean Growth Area, where Sabah would be part of the equation. This is what he proposed in 1993 to his counterparts at the time (Bolkiah of Brunei, Suharto of Indonesia, Mahathir of Malaysia), who gave it their support.
Coupled with the BIMP-Eaga, Ramos also constituted a Bipartisan Executive Legislative Advisory Council on Sabah, which apparently agreed in early 1993 to work “quietly with the Malaysians” to establish a corporation whose activities would presumably solve the financial problems of the Sultanate of Sulu.
The BIMP-Eaga was born in 1994, and includes essentially Mindanao and Palawan, and most if not all of Borneo, which includes Sabah, all of Brunei, and parts of Indonesia and Malaysia. What happened to it?
It still exists. But whether it has shown itself to be a win-win solution to the Sabah problem is very much in doubt. For example, it was supposed to facilitate the free movement of people, goods and services. Yet, during its existence, mass deportations of Filipinos from Sabah under the harshest conditions have taken place, and charges of torture and sexual abuse/rape by Malaysian authorities accompanying these activities are not uncommon. Moreover, there are continuing reports of exploitation of Filipino workers in Sabah, documented or undocumented.
Given that there is a standing claim, however “dormant,” to Sabah, given that for centuries travel between Sabah and Sulu was unrestricted, given that the Tausug from Sulu have always considered Sabah home and feel that they have as much right as Malaysians to live there, one would think that the Malaysians would approach the situation with more sensitivity. But they behave in exactly the opposite manner, seemingly confident that the Philippine government would not “rock the boat.”
And, alas, they are right. A report by a nongovernment organisation talks about “the pathetic stance of the Philippine government on deportation… showing that it cannot protect the interest of its citizen[s] much more assert itself as a sovereign nation.”
And what happened to the corporation that was to be set up (supposedly with Malaysian cooperation) to protect the heirs of the Sultanate? Twenty years later, absolutely zilch. It is a wonder the Sultan hasn’t run amok.