By Logan Ma
A foray by renegade Philippine gunmen into the Malaysian state of Sabah last month has led to ongoing clashes with government security forces. The fallout from the unexpected violence is far-reaching. For one, the standoff has reignited a long-standing territorial dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines. But more importantly, how Prime Minister Najib Razak’s incumbent government handles Malaysia’s most serious security dilemma in decades could very well decide the outcome of the upcoming general election.
For centuries, Sabah had been under the control of the now-defunct Sultanate of Sulu, an Islamic state based on the island of the same name in the present-day Philippine Mindanao Muslim autonomous region. From the late 19th century to independence, the region, known as North Borneo at the time, was a British colony. The current dispute originates from differences in interpretation of an 1878 agreement between the Sultan of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company. Although the agreement gave the British control over North Borneo, there was a difference in translation of the document. The British version of the agreement stated that North Borneo was to be ceded to the British North Borneo Company, while the Sulu version only said that North Borneo would be leased. The terms of the agreement also stipulated that the British make an annual payment of 5,300 ringgits (1,715 USD) to the sultanate. To this day, the Malaysian Embassy in Manila issues an annual check of the same amount to the legal counsel of the sultanate. While supporters of the Sulu sultanate view the payment as rent, the Malaysian government sees it as cession payment.
In the decades after the agreement was put into effect, the Sulu Sultan had become nothing more than a figurehead with no real power. In 1962, the then reigning Sultan of Sulu, Muhammad Esmail E. Kiram I, ceded the territory to the Republic of the Philippines. However, after the British granted self-governance to North Borneo in 1963, the people of Sabah voted in favor of forming the Federation of Malaysia with Malaya, Sarawak and, at the time, Singapore. The Philippines promptly broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia. After relations were restored between Manila and Kuala Lumpur, the issue was tabled in favor of closer economic cooperation. Yet, the question of sovereignty still remains a thorny issue. The recent developments in the territorial dispute began when over 200 hundred Filipino gunmen made the hour-long boat journey from Sulu to Lahad Datu in Sabah on Feb. 9. Upon coming ashore, they identified themselves as the royal militia of self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and expressed the objective of asserting the sultan’s claim to the area.
Initially, Malaysian authorities attempted to negotiate peaceably with the intruders, but talks began to break down after multiple requests for the group to return to the Philippines were ignored. The situation escalated dramatically when Filipino gunmen ambushed a group of policemen on March 2. Several of the dead officers were allegedly mutilated. Shocked by the incident, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak deployed seven battalions of soldiers to Sabah with orders to use whatever force necessary to defeat the gunmen. Three days later, Malaysian security forces launched a massive offensive backed by fighter jets and mortars against the gunmen, killing 31. Since the fighting began, upwards of 60 people have been killed, including eight Malaysian police officers.
Despite its claims to the region, the administration of Philippine President Benigo Aquino has cooperated with the Malaysian government. Aquino’s unwillingness to confront the Malaysian authorities can be attributed to two factors. First, Malaysia recently helped broker a peace agreement last November between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), one of several groups involved in the Moro Muslim insurgency in Mindanao. Ironically, that conflict began in 1967 after Filipino soldiers massacred Moro fighters preparing to invade Sabah. Second, any perceived effort to pursue Philippine claims on the region under heightened security conditions in Sabah would threaten the estimated 800,000 Filipinos living there, many of who are refugees of the Mindanao conflict.
For Prime Minister Razak, the violence inconveniently comes during an election year. The Malaysian constitution stipulates that elections must be held no later than June. Barisan National (BN), a coalition anchored by Razak’s United Malay National Organization (UMNO), has dominated Malaysian politics since independence. Much like neighboring Singapore’s ruling People’s Action Party, UMNO and its allies in BN maintain power through control of the media and suppression of political freedoms. But in the 2008 general election BN suffered one of its worst defeats at the hands of the opposition group Pakatan Rakyat (PR). Of the 222 seats up for grabs in the House of Representatives, PR won 82. In addition, five of the twelve contested state legislatures were won by the opposition, compared to one of twelve in the previous election. Although BN still controlled the majority of seats in the legislature, the 2008 general election marked the first time since 1969 that BN lost control of the supermajority needed to pass constitutional amendments.
Although Razak is determined to reverse BN’s 2008 setback, all signs point to an even closer election in 2013. While BN has maintained robust economic growth and strong support among the rural poor, continued dissatisfaction with government corruption has eroded support. The reform-minded opposition, headed by former UMNO leader Anwar Ibrahim, hopes to capitalize on its gains in the last election and win the majority outright, ending BN’s monopoly on Malaysian politics. Coincidentally, one area in which PR has pegged its hopes for the upcoming election is Sabah. With the highest poverty rate among all Malaysian states at 19.7 percent, Sabah has traditionally supported BN and its policies geared towards the rural poor. In the 2008 elections, Sabah and the neighboring state of Sarawak were instrumental in preventing a complete drubbing of BN by PR, contributing one-third of BN’s seats. But if Razak’s administration mishandles the violence in Sabah, the electorate could very well swing the vote in favor of PR.
In the aftermath of the latest Malaysian offensive, Jamalul Kiram declared a unilateral ceasefire. Razak promptly rejected it, calling instead for unconditional surrender. In rejecting the ceasefire, Razak temporarily silenced detractors who had accused him of ineffective leadership in the first weeks of the crisis. But Razak must resolve this crisis once and for all before the upcoming election. If he succeeds in decisively defeating the intruders, he could very well use the success to carry BN to victory in the election, as Margaret Thatcher did for the Conservative Party in the aftermath of the 1982 Falklands War. Anything less, however, could signal an end to BN’s 55-year grip on power and a new dawn in Malaysian politics.
Photo by esharkj