Thursday, March 07, 2013

Now that I’ve got your attention

The recent incursion into Malaysia’s Eastern Province of Sabah by the "Sulu Royal Army" is less to do about claiming an ancestral homeland than it is to do with being part of the Bangsomoro solution to the Southern Philippines troubled and often violent history.

From its creation in 1963 the Malaysian Government has been paying “rent” to the Sultanate of Sulu for the Sabah region of Borneo.  Although modest, at around US$1700 per year, the payment does seem to validate the Sultan of Sulu’s claim of ownership. It is reported that a 2010 request to up the “rent” to US$ 1 Billion a year was ignored by the Malaysian Government.

The invasion of the village of Tanduo in the east of Sabah by the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” 3 weeks ago did not impress the Malaysian Government or the Government of the Philippines for that matter. Whilst there has been some question between these two governments over the sovereignty of Sabah it is one that has not been pursued with any vigor. And, unsurprisingly, the armed forces of Malaysia have been instructed to eject the interlopers.

The Malaysian Government has been acting as peace broker between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of the groups in the Southern Philippines conducting an armed struggle for regional autonomy.  In October of last year the Philippine President, Benigno Aquino III, announced the creation of a Bangsamoro political entity, a landmark deal designed to bring peace to the troubled region. The Sulu Sultan’s actions over the past few weeks would indicate a vote of confidence in this process and an act of desperation at being excluded.

For, should it come to pass that the Southern Philippines does in fact become a place of peace, prosperity is believed to follow. Mindanao, the Sulu archipelago, and adjacent islands including Palawan which fall under the Bangsamoro deal are rumored to be a resource treasure trove that has avoided exploitation due to the decades old civil unrest. No doubt several fortunes are just waiting to be made.   

Jamalul Kiram III, one of several claimants to the Sultancy of Sulu and the most vocal over the past weeks, claims to have written to President Aquino twice since the Bangsamoro announcement and on both occasions his letters have been ignored. Reports suggest that the letters have been lost in the bureaucratic maze of the MalacaƱang Palace, the home of the Philippine Presidency. Although it is a given in the Philippines that a request ignored or that needs to be thought about is a request denied.

Perhaps President Aquino should heed the advice of the UN’s Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and proceed with a dialogue with all the parties concerned. It may well entail giving the Sultanate of Sulu a seat at the Bangsamoro table, if not with a speaking part at least observer status. Obliviously such an inclusion by the Philippine Government would require the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” vacate Sabah should the Malaysian Government be persuaded to let them retire.