Sabah stand-off the result of Aquino-MILF pact

As published in The Manila Times, February 22, 2013

The occupation of a Sabah town by a group of 200 Muslim Filipinos – many of whom are armed – is the result of President B.S. Aquino’s ill conceived, rushed peace settlement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, contained in the so-called “Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro”.

Mr. Aquino’s dash to sign it April last year, sources claimed, was due to a particular motive: A foolish calculation that  it would make him a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize this year, nominations for which end this month.

The Sabah occupation led by Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the Sultan of Sulu, is part of an organized, even desperate effort by Muslim clans and organizations, especially the Moro National Liberation Front led by Nur Misuari, to force government to include them as parties on the same level as the MILF in any peace pact.

Aquino’s “Framework Agreement for the Bangsamoro” has a fatal flaw:  It recognized only the MILF as the sole representative of Muslims, which will be given broad, nearly sovereign state powers in Muslim Mindanao. But the MILF is not representative of all Filipino, and has been mainly a force in central Mindanao, composed mostly of the Maguindanaos and a small percentage of  Maranaos.

Other ethnic groups were excluded in the peace agreement, especially the Tausugs, the majority in the Sulu archipelaego who feel they led the Muslim rebellion since the Spanish period up to the modern era. The MNLF consists mostly of Tausugs and a Yakan minority while the Sulu Sultanate is a Tausug one.

The British news agency Reuters  quoting Kiram III reported: “The Sulu royal family had asked to take part in the peace negotiations because the old sultanate’s territories would be part of a new autonomous Muslim area, but they were rebuffed by the Philippine government.”

“We were not consulted. When we learned that the government and the MILF will sign an agreement, we met on October 11 and decided to take action to reclaim our lands,” he told Reuters.

He said the group of sultan loyalists had gone to Malaysia as a protest action in response to what they saw as the unfair peace deal, and they would not back down, according to the Reuters report.

Why Sabah?

It is intended to pressure Malaysia, whose security services since the 1970s have been the secret supporter first of the MNLF and later the MILF, to convince the Philippine government to drastically revise its approach to the peace talks by including the other non-MILF groups into the process.

Malaysia has also been the principal broker in the peace talks with the MILF, using its clout with the group resulting from its decades of clandestine material support for it.

The expedition to Sabah is a clear message to Malaysia because of the Muslim insurgency’s history.  While Muslims were willing to fight for their grievances against Christian colonizers and “imperial Manila”, they had been unable – because of their tribal groupings – to unite among themselves to become a threat to the central government.

This changed in the 1960s when the Philippines, first under President Diosdado Macapagal and then Ferdinand Marcos moved to claim Sabah as part of the country. This was on grounds that the Sultanate of Sulu, which was internationally recognized as Sabah’s owner, leased it in 1878 to the British North Borneo Co., but had not sold it. The British could not turn it into a crown colony  that became one of the states in the Federation of Malaysia, which emerged in 1948.

Marcos became more aggressive in the country’s territorial claim that he organized a so-called “Operation Merdeka (Freedom)” in 1967 to train and inject Filipino Muslim commandos into the territory to organize their brethren there into a Sabah independence movement, that would eventually join the Philippines.  The operation though was aborted when then  Senator Benigno Aquino, Jr. exposed it, claiming that he had no choice in doing so as the Muslims (14 to 48, according to different reports) who were being  trained by Army Special Forces in Corregidor island were executed in January 1968  when they mutinied, allegedly upon realizing that they were going “to fight their fellow Muslims.”

Aquino dubbed it the “Jabidah Massacre” (for the name of the Muslim commando unit that was being formed) although a UP academic, Arnold Azurin, claimed after his detailed research that it was myth, deliberately propagated in the demonization campaign against Marcos during that period by the anti-Marcos Lopez media. While Aquino presented to media one witness (wounded at the knee), not one corpse of the alleged Muslim young men executed was ever found, and not one relative emerged seeking redress. Strangely also, the idealist anti-Marcos military man Victor Corpuz, who was among the Special Forces officers in Corregidor then had not publicly confirmed that there was a “massacre.”

The Malaysians apparently decided to give Marcos a dose of his own medicine.  Its intelligence services assisted Filipino Muslims who had been espousing an independent Moro state, the most prominent being Nur Misuari who would chair the MNLF and Hashim Salamat, who would later set up the MILF, after the MNLF signed a peace agreement with Marcos in1976.   Without the Malaysians, a source claimed, the Tausugs led by Misuari would not have united with the Maguindanaos led by Salamat, who was also persuaded, despite his bigger force, to accept only the vice chairman post.

Leading MILF cadres had given me details about this when I wrote an investigative piece in the Far Eastern Economic Review (“The fire next time,” March 28, 1996) on that insurgency organization’s growth.

The first group of MNLF commanders – called “Batch ’90”  — were trained in a military camp in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur by former British special forces commandos in late 1968, while a second, “Batch 120” were recruited the next year.  Both MILF chairman Al-haj Murad Ibrahim was with the Batch 90, while vice chairman Ghazali Jaafar and MILF founder Hashim Salamat Malaysian passports, identities, and even residences   It was the Malaysian intelligence services which coursed funds and arms to the MNLF through the  very porous borders between Sulu and Sabah.

It was because of their military training by Malaysian-hired British commandos and because of their Malaysian-provided weapons that made the MNLF a formidable force in the early 1970s that was a shock to the Philippine military.

Marcos in 1979 realized that the MNLF’s strength was due to Malaysian help that he covertly informed that country’s leaders that his government will no longer pursue the Sabah claim.

When the Malaysians demanded a formal statement to this effect, Marcos cleverly released a 49-paged essay  “Breaking the stalemate: towards a resolution of the Sabah question” in which he wrote:  “It is sufficient in my judgment that withdrawal of the claim is in the overall interest of the Republic; that it is the key to stability and peace and development of our Southern borders”.  It is not clear though whether Marcos’ statement bound the country, as it was not backed up by any formal letter to the Malaysian government.

The Sabah “invasion” is a strong, clear message to the Malaysians by other Muslim tribes, especially the Tausugs: “If we are not included in Aquino’s peace settlement, we will be a big headache to you, as we will revive Filipinos’ Sabah claim.”

This is the second major move by non-MILF forces to send the message to government that they cannot be left out of the peace talks.  Last week, the MNLF hunted down Abu Sayyaf forces, killing about 20 of the terrorist group’s fighters. Misuari’s obvious message: “It is the MNLF  and not the MILF you can rely on to wipe out jihadists in Mindanao, the Americans’ sworn enemies.  So you better include us as rulers of the Bangsamoro.”

E-mail: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com

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