Where is ASEAN?

Front page of a Malaysian newspaper March 11

The Manila Times, March 13, 2013

With the death toll of Filipino Muslims killed in Sabah by Malaysian authorities rising to 62 and with reports of human rights abuses against our countrymen, where the heck is ASEAN?

Forgotten it seems is the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, one of whose main purposes is to “promote regional peace and stability through abiding respect for justice and the rule of law in the relationship among countries of the region”.

Ban Ki Moon, the secretary-general of the United Nationswhich consists of 193 member states last week issued a statement calling for “dialogue among all parties to end the (Sabah) conflict peacefully. He also urged “all parties to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards.”

Why hasn’t there been a similar statement – even just an innocuous one like “ASEAN is concerned over the fighting” —  from ASEAN consisting of  just ten member countries, whose two founders, the Philippines and Malaysia,  are involved in this flashpoint in Southeast Asia?

Did our department of foreign affairs even ask ASEAN to persuade Malaysia not to throw its full, brutal force against the Sultan of Sulu’s men who had dug in in Lahad Datu and to give the government more time to talk to them?  Or did it just forget to ask ASEAN?

The chair of ASEAN for 2012  is Cambodia.  While technically Brunei is already chair for this year, the post will have to be formally turned over in the Asean summit next month.

Unfortunately, our foreign affairs secretary Alberto del Rosario practically insulted the Cambodian chair in its November 2012 summit by implying he was following China’s dictation by refusing to include in the ASEAN statement a mention of the Philippines’ territorial dispute with China in Scarborough shoal.  So knowing this, was del Rosario terrified of asking ASEAN to help out in the Sabah crisis?

Not only has there been no statement from the ASEAN secretariat on the Sabah conflict, there’s not been a word on it in its official website.

Ironically, the ASEAN’s main activity in the past two weeks, as the fighting raged in Sabah, has been consultation meetings at the ASEAN secretariat’s office of representatives of  the Brunei Darusallam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines’ East Asia Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA). Former president Fidel Ramos had pushed for the organization in 1994 of the BIMP-EAGA, in which the development of Sabah, where both Filipino and Malaysian Muslims considered themselves one single community, was a key element of.

Ramos in fact in a recent interview said that a strengthening of EAGA “is the win-win strategy if you are looking for a more prosperous, more sustainable future for all the people” in Sabah.  BIMP-EAGA Malaysia Business Council chairman Roselan Johar Mohamed however said that the intrusion of “Sulu terrorists” in Sabah is a blow to the EAGA’s progress.   The Malaysian might be correct, since obviously EAGA had glossed over the Sabah dispute and its potential for armed conflict. Instead of part of a growth area, a corner of Sabah has become a killing field.

Whatever one’s bias is, it is increasingly becoming obvious with the South China Sea territorial disputes (involving four ASEAN members) and now with the Sabah conflict that ASEAN is just short of being a useless institution in our part of the world.

 

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President Aquino appears to have buried his head in the sand pretending that the Sabah conflict, which has claimed the lives of 62 Muslim Filipinos and arrests of over a 100, will just go away.

Secretary Mar Roxas though has been getting increasingly worried about the issue, since it could bring the Aquino presidency down, and consequently he would have to kiss good-bye his presidential ambitions for 2016.

Roxas is said to have been told by his advisers that the Sabah conflict is “100 times” the “Flor Contemplacion” episode in 1995, in which the execution of the overseas worker by the Singaporean government and the perception that government was inutile in saving her, nearly brought the Fidel Ramos administration down. (To appease the public crying for blood, Ramos fired foreign affairs secretary Roberto Romulo and labor secretary Nieves Confesor.)

Sources claimed that Roxas had been bugging Aquino to heed President Fidel Ramos’ advice for him to have a one-on-one meeting with the Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III in order to end the conflict.

Aquino though has been adamant and one source claimed he barked at Roxas: “Ikaw na nga bahala diyan.”  Knowing that the Sultan would turn down his offer to meet with him – and then tell the press about it, to his embarasment —  Roxas had to settle for the Sultan’s brother, Bantilan Esmail Kiram.

That move though may have come at a propitious time for Roxas, as the Sultan’s men seems to have decided to flee to fight another day, rather than idiotically clash with the Malaysian’s superior force.

Prepare for ABS-CBN special coverage how about Roxas, the peace-maker, the savior of Filipino lives in Sabah.

 

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What kind of nation are we?

Yellow journalists have been vicious putting down the Sultan of Sulu and his men, with one claiming (together with Presidential Spokesman Edwin Lacierda) that the Sabah fighters were paid $600 each and were promised positions in the Sultanate.

In contrast, Malaysian journalists have been of one voice demonizing the Sulu fighters, for instance alleging, without presenting evidence,  that they beheaded and mutilated the bodies of several of the Malaysian police who were earlier reported to be killed in firefights with them.  One claimed based on  his “intelligence sources” that the Sultan’s men were with the Al-Qaeda, out to establish Sabah as terrorist haven in Asia.

At the start of the conflict, Malaysian officials and journalists described them as “Sulu intruders” or just “Sulu gunmen.” These terms were then notched up to “Sulu terrorists.” Starting the other day, unfortunately for us a nation, they labeled the Sultan’s men just “Filipino terrorists.”