Thursday, March 14, 2013

Southern discomfort

Last October 15, 2012, Philippine President Benigno Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak were all smiles as they posed for posterity with members of the peace panels for the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who had just signed their framework agreement for peace. Hopes were high that finally peace would be within reach after so many years of fighting with the adoption of an historic agreement laying the framework for a new Muslim autonomous region to be called Bangsamoro.
President Benigno Aquino III does his "noynoying" on the recent Sabah
standoff. Photo courtesy of The Tribune Editorial cartoon. Click link to view President
Aquino's Press Conference  on the Sabah Issue.
President Aquino was relying on the Bangsamoro framework agreement as the lasting legacy of his presidency, a grand peace initiative that has eluded his predecessors. A major achievement, more significant probably than anything else like his symbolic campaign against corruption. Likewise, Malaysian PM Razak was optimistic that his high-profile role as broker for peace would clinch his re-election in the coming Malaysian elections. It was friendship and cooperation, both symbolic and statesman-like, between the two leaders that would have cast them as rising leaders of the Southeast Asian nations.
Everything was going according to plan until the Sabah standoff. Who would have thought the old claim of the Sultan of Sulu over Sabah was like a posterior itch that wouldn’t go away? What about the Malaysian PM’s brokering for peace, was he really sincere in bringing the warring parties to an agreement or simply taking advantage of the opportunity to score points for his re-election? And how about the unmasking of President Aquino’s lack of leadership during the crisis and his inability to protect his own people?
Even if the Malaysian military is able to comb out all the supporters of the Sultan of Sulu in Sabah, all dead rather than alive by their preference, this will still be a great debacle for the Malaysian PM that could cost him his re-election. President Aquino, for his initial subservient position to Malaysia’s stand and rebuke of the Sultan’s armed incursion into our neighbour’s backyard, would always be painted by many as the one president who gave up his own people to the wolves. No matter how one looks at this crisis, both leaders would find it very difficult to escape the wrath of their respective citizens.
Malaysia is reported to be deporting close to 800,000 Filipinos from Sabah, all Muslims and former residents of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi who have originally escaped from the internecine war between the Philippine military and Muslim insurgents in Mindanao. Most of these Filipinos now possess citizenship cards which were granted by former Malaysian Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir in an alleged effort to secure political domination of the state by using immigrant votes.
A royal commission was established by the Malaysian federal government to investigate illegal immigration in Sabah which could have accounted for the surge in its population. The recent military confrontation between Malaysia and the Sultan of Sulu’s army may hamper this investigation or facilitate the deportation of Filipino Muslims from Sabah as they now appear to be returning to Sulu and Tawi-Tawi by the hundreds daily. This could also seriously spoil the re-election of the current Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak as he faces strong criticism for his government’s handling of the Sabah stand-off and the manner of exodus of Muslim Filipinos.
President Benigno Aquino III might be the biggest loser from this Sabah bloodbath. His hands have been tied by his friendship with the Malaysian PM for helping the Philippine government broker a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Aquino’s initial pronouncements on the Sabah conflict were all carefully crafted to support the actions of the Malaysian government against the Sultan of Sulu’s army. Even as the sultan’s soldiers were getting annihilated, all Aquino could muster to do was berate the sultan like a child and order him to withdraw his troops. Aquino even threatened to extradite the sultan to Malaysia with whom the Philippines does not have an extradition treaty. Instead of resorting to diplomacy in order to negotiate a ceasefire and possibly a face-saving pull-out of the sultan’s army, Aquino opted to let Malaysia handle the situation unilaterally even if it meant killing all the sultan’s soldiers.
Allowing your own people to get massacred, is this the kind of statesmanship expected of a president? Especially, when your people are up in arms in order to redress an arguably legitimate grievance.
Nobody expected President Aquino to embrace the sultan’s war, but when the situation has deteriorated to a crisis of humanitarian proportions, the better angels of our human nature dictate that we summon everything possible to save lives. We rally to the side of humanity, for saving lives is more important than any military victory at the expense of loss of human lives. We don’t keep denigrating the sultan’s decision to send his army however senseless it was when our Muslim brothers are getting killed. Or we don’t write opinion columns like Conrado de Quiros who keeps on describing the sultan’s military misadventure as idiotic, foolish and an utter waste. De Quiros continues to call the sultan’s incursion in Sabah as tragic and farcical in order to absolve President Aquino of any culpability for not doing anything during the crisis.
The Sultan of Sulu had always been victimized by a history of deception and trickery by colonial powers. In July 1878, Spain entered into a Treaty of Peace with the sultan which allowed them to set up a small garrison in the town of Jolo. Under the said treaty, the sultan would retain his rule outside the walls of the Spanish garrison. But that kind of protectorate relationship would be exploited by Spain in ceding the Philippine Islands to the United States in the Treaty of Paris in 1898, which included the Sulu islands and territories in Mindanao which had never been in full Spanish control. The sultan thought that the agreement with the Spaniards was similar to the one he signed six months earlier with the British North Borneo Chartered Company, which paid him $5,000 annually for the use of his North Borneo territories (now Sabah). This is now the same lease agreement being invoked by the present Sultan of Sulu in reviving its claim over Sabah.
Students from the University of the Philippines in Diliman, Quezon City rally
for peace in Sabah, Borneo. Photo Aaron Favila/AP.
After their defeat by the U.S., the Spaniards turned over a garrison on the island of Siasi, southwest of Jolo, to the sultan. It was not until May 1899 that the U.S. troops took over the Spanish fort in Jolo. The Americans had not been able to get troops to Jolo sooner because they could not afford to send any troops outside of Luzon where they had been locked in a fierce battle with Filipino insurgents.
When the Americans arrived in Jolo, they told Jamalul Kiram II, the sultan of Sulu, that the U.S. had taken over the islands from Spain. They asked the sultan to recognize the U.S. and honour the 1878 provisions of the treaty which the sultan had signed with Spain. But the sultan refused, stating that the U.S. was a different entity and that the U.S. should enter into a new treaty with the Sultanate.
So the Americans negotiated the Bates Treaty of 1899 with the Sultan of Sulu, which turned out to be a classic example of American deception and how to use treaties in disingenuous ways. The Bates Treaty granted some degree of autonomy and protection to the Sulu Sultanate, effectively keeping them out of the Philippine-American War which was peaking in Luzon at that time. But once that war had ended, the terms of the Bates Treaty were broken which the United States considered an impediment to their colonial administration. American troops moved to bring the Moro territories under American military control, leading to the Moro War which would last for thirteen years, making it the longest war in U.S. history.
It was the wording relating to American sovereignty in the Bates Treaty and a critical error in its translation that the U.S. capitalized on in incorporating the Sulu archipelago into the new Philippine republic in 1946 when it granted independence to the Philippines. Thus, the Bates Treaty was in effect the first step towards the dissolution of Muslim sovereignty and the dismantling of the Sulu Sultanate.
History seems to repeat itself with the present Philippine government under President Aquino doing a Bates Treaty déjà vu. In entering into a peace agreement with the MILF for a new Bangsamoro nation, the government is effectively bringing the Sulu Sultanate to a final closure. The proposed Bangsamoro substate will be the new Muslim domain, all the lands to be incorporated in this new territory will all be subject to the Bangsamoro government; the Sulu Sultanate and all the lands under its former realm will be part of this new substate, thus reducing the southern Muslim kingdom to a mere historical footnote.
Maybe this is the primary reason behind the sultan’s military foray in Sabah, to let President Aquino and the rest of the Muslim world in the South know that the Sulu Sultanate will not allow any new government such as the proposed Bangsamoro to simply ignore them as if they never existed. History is on the side of the Sultanate of Sulu which has antedated even the Republic of the Philippines, or its colonial governments under Spain and the United States. If this is the case, then President Aquino has dug a very deep hole. The government’s peace accord with the MILF is in serious trouble, and the peace-building initiative in Mindanao that has proved so elusive in the past will have suffered yet another major setback.

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