Isnin, 11 Mac 2013

ADVOCACY MINDANAO

BY JESS G. DUREZA

Lift Sabah food blockade
A WORD of caution to Malaysia. It should refrain from pushing the button.
My recommendation is for Malaysia to lift its announced “deadline to vacate” and the food blockade imposed to scuttle the Sulu Sultanate’s resolve. Extending it to a few more days won’t work. It will only lead to the brink.
Now that the Philippine government is grappling with the incident and has indicated that it will help handle the situation, it may be best for Malaysia to just leave the matter, for the meantime, to the Philippine side to resolve the so-called “stand off.” This will need cooling-off time so deadlines won't help.
I strongly suggest that Philippine backchannels, official or otherwise, must work round the clock to convince Malaysia to leave the matter to the Philippine side to resolve this.
Time is of the essence. Malaysia must also be given a “graceful exit” of lifting its declared “deadline” by making it appear that it is merely acceding to a “friendly neighbor’s” request. After all, this way Malaysia will pass on the onus of the problem to the Philippine side. And Filipinos, I know, will have a way of quietly resolving it in time. For the moment, this is a Filipino problem that only Filipinos can resolve.
MY OWN SABAH ‘ENCOUNTERS’
I had my own share of “encounters” with this ticklish Sabah issue when I was with government during the administrations of then Presidents Fidel Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
I recall when the four countries under the BIMP EAGA (Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines East Asian Growth Area) were set to sign a document setting up a facilitation center to be based in Kota Kinabalu, the document hit a snag when the address of the center was written in the draft Agreement as “Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.” The Philippine Foreign Affairs department in Padre Faura declined to affix the Philippine signature because it will indirectly accept Sabah as part of Malaysia.
Again, when backchannels were suggesting that we open a Philippine consulate in Sabah ostensibly to protect the Filipinos there (due to their numbers and recurring problems), our government firmly but courteously declined. A Philippine Consular Office in Sabah can be interpreted to mean that we officially acknowledge Sabah as within Malaysian territory.

All of these were done discreetly but “with grace and aplomb,” cognizant of the Philippine pending claim but balancing with the imperatives of international diplomacy.
On the Sultanate of Sulu side, there were behind-the-scene efforts to adroitly handle the Kirams to keep them assured that they were “not sidelined” and kept them from feeling aggrieved, and that we were not somehow squandering away their proprietary interests they held dear.
This worked during FVR and GMA’s time. Remember, one of the Kirams was even included in the previous administration’s senatorial slate.Remember one of the Kirams in the recent past was given a high position in the sports commission. That was the whole point! How the Aquino government handled this now, I have no way of knowing at all.
For President Benigno Aquino III to publicly accuse some personalities of conspiracy in allegedly staging this Sabah “stand-off” scenario to torpedo the Moro Ismalic Liberation Front (MILF) peace negotiations is, with due respects to the President, too haphazard and premature at this early stage. There are many factors at play.
NOT ON RADAR
As part of my BIMP EAGA tasks in the past as the highest Philippine official, I had traveled several times to Sabah together with Philippine government officials and the private sector.
There were no hassles at all and we were dealing with our neighbors in purely economic engagements. Political or sovereignty issues were not on our radar screen.
BIMP EAGA, as a matter of fact, was set up by President Ramos and Prime Minister Mahathir (who came to Davao just to launch it) to emphasize the primacy and need for economic cooperation among neighboring countries in the south. In the process, the political issues took a back seat, effectively relegating sovereignty issues in the back burner. In fact, it became a non-issue.
GOOD NEIGHBOR
Now that the “cat is out of the bag,” Sabah will be a lingering issue for sometime. No doubt it will have a bearing on our relations with Malaysia, which has been a good neighbor.
It will have security implications. It has international ramifications. It may affect in some way the ongoing peace negotiations with the MILF where ancestral domain issues are major sticky points.
With the public resurrection of the Sulu Sultanate’s claim, the question begs to be answered: Why is the ancestral domain claim of the MILF purportedly in representation of all Bangsamoro excluding Sabah when there is historical basis for such claim?
Of course, for obvious reasons, Malaysia’s earnest and key role as peace talks facilitator will be put under cloud. For sure, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Chairman Nur Misuari who still nurses some ill feelings on the way he was treated by the Malaysians during his arrest and detention there, will use this development as a platform to pursue his “claim Sabah” campaign.
His disdain on the Malaysian-brokered MILF Framework Agreement is too public to ignore. I can’t help but suspect that some of Chairman Nur’s MNLF elements are part of the armed contingent now in Lahad Datu.
SECURITY IMPLICATIONS
But I am more worried about the effect of all these on our relations with Malaysia, our next-door neighbor which has been a good ally in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
It has also serious security implications for the Philippines because we have “opened our barracks” to Malaysians who know exactly the Armed Forces of the Philippines’ (AFP) capabilities (and weaknesses), especially in Mindanao with Malaysian military forces actively engaged in ceasefire work in every nook of our southern region.
They know every detail of our AFP’s operational status in the south, to the last detachment on the ground.
Of course, armed hostilities between us and Malaysia  s far-fetched but it's good to point this out for our own reality check.
MALAYSIAN ELECTIONS, TOO
Now, the Aquino administration is confronted with it and is compelled to deal with it. The timing of the eruption of the issue during our own May election campaign period is also unfortunate. We know how it is when some political candidates will use this as an issue in the campaign.
Many may not be aware of this but there is ALSO  the forthcoming elections in Malaysia this year. The controversy will be a factor, no doubt.
This may be internal Malaysian matter but I am informed reliably that there is some quiet rancor and insecurity amongst Tausugs who are in Sabah now and who are not even involved in the so-called “stand-off.”
The Royal Inquisition Commission in Malaysia has started to look closely at the Immigration Cards (IC) system that granted resident or legal status to some Filipino Muslims, mostly Tausugs from Sulu, as part of some political move to downscale the voting strength of Sabahans in the forthcoming Malaysian elections.
Many Tausugs, mostly Sultanate subjects who are long-time residents there, were affected. The campaign was the cause of many forced repatriations.
My calculation is that while the actual body count involved in the “stand-off” is said to have 200 to 300 warm bodies, the feeling of insecurity and grievance is pervasive among many Sabah residents who came from Mindanao. They are potential “actors” if the scenario is mishandled.
I was also reliably informed that Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, the former Deputy Minister of Malaysia who was charged and detained but was acquitted of sodomy charges, had met sometime ago with Chairman Nur Misuari (also charged and detained and also acquitted for rebellion). They did not talk about their cases for sure. Yes, they discussed this “IC” cleansing issue in Sabah. What came out of that meeting was still unclear.
WAY FORWARD
One way forward is to pursue it as a “proprietary” issue to protect the rights of the Sultanate of Sulu.
From my own assessment, the Sultanate appears insecure due to the reported approaching “expiration” of the lease payments.
It is also aggrieved because Malaysia reportedly increased the amount of payments for Sarawak, another tenement similar to Sabah’s situation.
The IC “cleansing” which has negative viral effect on Filipino Muslims in Sabah and its ramifications in Malaysian politics is another matter.
Let’s not forget the Misuari-MNLF factor.
These must all be taken into account.
MARHATABAT
A premature and reckless move by Malaysian authorities, even as a public avowal of its non-negotiable policy of Malaysian territorial integrity may trigger a more complicated scenario.
I am not making this up or sound threatening. But it is publicly known that the Tausugs of Sulu (and many of them are now embedded in communities in Sabah) value their honor and dignity.
Muslims refer to this as marhatabat. They value this more than life.
The use of force to resolve this will only worsen things.
What is crucial is how the “stand-off” can be handled with great sensitivity and balance.
I trust the two governments will accordingly calibrate their actions. The “sovereignty issue” can be dealt with at another time. But returning this to the back burner, as it was, may be difficult to do now./PN

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