Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Philippine and Malaysian governments better do something fast about the Sabah standoff before it erupts into a shooting war. The 100 armed followers of the sultan of Sulu are armed with assorted high-powered firearms. They must have gone to Sabah ready to fight. Why else would they have brought guns?
The Sulu force is surrounded by Malaysian security forces. One false move and it can be mowed down. The leaders on both sides must have cool heads or the whole thing can deteriorate into a major tragedy. Both Philippine and Malaysian governments have urged the "invaders" to go back home, but the latter won't budge.
So what is there to do? The Sulu sultan's followers understandably don't want to go back home with their tails between their legs. On the other hand, the Malaysian government cannot let them stay either. They are clearly, from the Malaysian point of view, invaders, interlopers, outsiders. They have to be ejected, or it would be the Malaysian government that would lose face.
The Philippine government either does not know what to do or does not want to get involved. But how can it not get involved when those are Filipinos out there? Yes, the Philippines has asked them to come home and "let's see what we can do later." But considering the many years that the Philippine government did nothing, obviously not wanting to ruffle the feathers of its wealthier and more powerful neighbour, will the Sultanate of Sulu still have faith in its government?
In fact, the sultan's followers say that they were forced to take this drastic action because the Philippine government has "abandoned" them.
But what must be in the minds of the sultan and his followers? Obviously, their measly force is no match to the Malaysian security forces. Perhaps what they had in mind was to wage a guerrilla war in Sabah, taking a cue from the successful guerrilla war that Fidel Castro waged in Cuba against the forces of Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. That is why they landed very far away from Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu. Perhaps they are hoping that Sabahans would join them. Sabah, after all, is settled mostly by Tausug from Sulu. Many of them are most likely relatives of the "invaders" from Sulu. Sabah is only an hour away by kumpit from Tawi-Tawi, and residents from both sides routinely commute between them for trade. Indeed, Tawi-Tawi and Sabah folk consider themselves part of one island group.
Instead of igniting a Castro-style guerrilla war in Sabah, however, what the Sulu force achieved was more like the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba by Cuban exiles trained, equipped and sent by the United States during the administration of President John F. Kennedy. As was the Cuban government in the Bay of Pigs, the Malaysians were tipped of the "invasion" and were ready when the "invaders" arrived. In the Bay of Pigs, the "invaders" were routed by the Cuban forces. In Sabah, the Filipinos were fortunate that the Malaysian security forces did not open fire immediately but merely surrounded them, perhaps mindful of the bloody carnage that would have ensued.
The Philippine government has called for a peaceful solution to the standoff. Both sides are now in a flurry of negotiations with the leaders of the Sulu force who refuse to leave, saying that they should not be expelled as Sabah is part of the Sultanate of Sulu. "We are not invaders," they said, "we are just coming home."
Going back to its origins, Sabah was indeed part of the Sultanate of Sulu. It was leased sometime in the 1800s by the British North Borneo Company for a yearly amount. When the Federation of Malaysia was formed, the British company handed it over to the new government of Malaysia. Up to recent years, Malaysia recognised the ownership of Sabah by the Sultanate of Sulu and paid it the annual lease.
The Philippine government raised the Sabah claim during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, which urged that the claim be decided by the world court or the United Nations. Malaysia, however, knowing that the Philippines had a valid claim, refused to take the case to an international body. The Marcos administration even thought of sending a guerrilla force to Sabah and went to the extent of training such a force in Corregidor, until a recruit ran to then Sen. Ninoy Aquino to expose the Jabidah massacre. The expos? killed the plan to infiltrate Sabah.
Subsequent administrations, wanting to maintain good relations with its neighbour, dropped the Sabah claim. That is what the Sultanate of Sulu is deploring: The Philippine government has abandoned its claim so it has to do something on its own.
How will the standoff all end? The best-case scenario is that the crisis will attract international attention and world powers would be able to convince Malaysia to agree to take the case to the International Court of Justice or to the bargaining table.