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Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Interesting Events : The Sabah Standoff - Malaysia's Big Dilemma

Map of Sabah
Malaysia is in a big dilemma on the Sabah standoff. The ongoing standoff  was due to the "illegal" occupation of  a "kampong" in Lahad Datu in Sabah by the heirs, followers and "royal army" of the Sultanate of Sulu. The group is invoking their legal and hereditary rights  to permanently stay in Sabah and they also submitted some demands to the Malaysian authorities. This incident is related to the heirs' long-standing Sabah claim, and this particular incident  is one that the Malaysians can not ignore or hide. If previous claims on Sabah  before were initiated by the Philippine government, the claim is now initiated by the actual heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, the lessor and the acknowledged owners of  Sabah.

Here are some possible scenarios for Malaysia if it doesn't exercise prudence on this standoff. Malaysia can accept the demands of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu but this could mean acknowledging the right of ownership of  the Sultanate to Sabah, thereby strengthening the Philippine claim. With this scenario, a possible ceding or partition of Sabah is not far-fetched.

It can also reject the demands of the heirs but this could start an insurgency in Sabah. The heirs and followers of the Sultanate of Sulu have a sizable number of supporters within Sabah which they could mobilize. These followers and supporters of the Sultanate have been long time residents of Sabah and many of them were actually born in Sabah, and practically considered ethnic Sabahans. Most of them also possess Malaysian citizenship. Malaysia wouldn't want these scenarios to happen.

An immediate solution to quell this "occupation" of Sabah is forced dispersal and eventual deportation of the Sultanate's "subjects", but this move could turn violent and cause bloodshed. Some of the Sultanate's followers are reportedly armed. This would attract more attention and the international media would surely scrutinize the Sabah ownership issue. It definitely wouldn't want this to happen.

A worse scenario would be the involvement of the separatist groups excluded in the recent Mindanao peace process and creation of Bangsamoro autonomous region.(Incidentally, the Mindanao peace process was brokered by Malaysia) These groups might shift their "separatist cause" and tie-up with Sultanate's cause of reclaiming Sabah. If they could not get Mindanao, they might as well help get Sabah. An interesting fact about the  Mindanao conflict is that it had its roots from the Sabah claim. So basically, this two issues are intertwined. The MNLF already publicly acknowledged that  it supports the "incursion" of the Sultanate's followers in Sabah. Reports say that some of the followers who are now in Lahad Datu are actually members of the MNLF. This last scenario would be unthinkable. The Malaysian and Philippine governments wouldn't want this to happen at all cost.

The previous claims of the Philippines on Sabah had been ignored by the Malaysian government despite legal and historical proofs that the territory belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu. The most tangible proofs of ownership are the continuing annual rental payment of the Malaysian government to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu; and a legal decision made by the High Court of North Borneo acknowledging that (part of) Sabah belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu. Furthermore, the lease agreement entered into by the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo company specifically stated that : the lease prohibits the transfer of Sabah to any nation, company or individual without the consent of His Majesty’s Government (“Sultanate of Sulu”).

The Sabah standoff has put Malaysia in a dilemma, and Malaysia has to exercise prudence in its decision and action regarding the ongoing standoff. Everyone, Malaysians and Filipinos, wants it to end peacefully.

Let's all hope that Malaysia will do what is fair and just. And maybe, just maybe, it could give some concession to its lessor's demands.

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