Sunday, March 10, 2013

Betraying Sabah

In possibly his last redemptive hour, the beleaguered dictator Ferdinand Marcos ordered the military to disperse without shooting the millions of people that gathered on EDSA in those two fateful days of the People Power Revolution. With his raspy voice almost inaudible, the dictator’s order was captured on television while giving his instructions to General Fabian Ver, the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
The Malaysian military conducts house-to-house search in Sabah for the Sultan of
Sulu's men as the sultan (Sultan  of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III, foreground) declared
unilateral ceasefire. Click link to
view "Malaysia raids Sabah village to end stand-off."
Imagine if the soldiers had instead fired at the huge throng of demonstrators. Or the tanks deployed by the army unleashed their artillery toward the unarmed mass of protesters. Or the helicopters hovering above fired their guns on the people assembled in front of Camp Crame and Camp Aguinaldo. No doubt, that could have been the mother of all carnage.
If that tragic ending happened, would Conrado de Quiros of the Philippine Daily Inquirer be writing there was “fringe” painted all over those “revolucionarios” just like the way he described the Lapiang Malaya Massacre of 1967 and the current Sabah shootout between the Sultan of Sulu’s army and the Malaysian military?

Unarmed, some with their families and children in tow, the demonstrators in EDSA were virtually exposed to harm’s way. It would have been so easy for De Quiros to call the EDSA uprising a tragic farce if it ended tragically. But as history unfolded, the EDSA revolt had the sweetest ending one would have ever imagined, a victorious unarmed people’s uprising against a heavily geared-up Armed Forces of the Philippines. No bloodshed, no casualty, no accounts of anyone wounded, except for sunburn, hundreds of thousands of hoarse throats, and swollen toes from pounding the EDSA concrete.
In 1967, Valentin delos Santos and his 380 Lapiang Malaya followers, armed with bolos and wearing amulets which they believed would protect them from harm, charged at the Malacanang gates to overthrow the government of Ferdinand Marcos. A phalanx of policemen and members of the Philippine Constabulary stopped them with gunfire from their M-16s. The carnage ended with 33 dead and 47 wounded, all members of Lapiang Malaya. Their leader Valentin delos Santos was sent to the National Center for Mental Health instead of prison.
De Quiros wrote that the recent foray of the Sultan’s army in Sabah was no different from the Lapiang Malaya assault of Malacanang in 1967. Both tragic and farcical, he said in his column. For good measure, De Quiros should have added the Katipunan’s launching of the Philippine Revolution against Spain in Pugad Lawin in 1896. Similarly armed only with bolos and their brave hearts, the Katipuneros must also be out of their wits that they could defeat the Spanish military with what they had.
Or perhaps, the adventurous Argentine forces that invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands on April 2, 1982, which prompted the British government to dispatch their navy to engage the Argentines and retake the islands. The Falkland Wars lasted 74 days and ended with the surrender of the Argentine forces, which returned the islands to British control. Did the Argentines act in desperation, madly thinking they could match the naval superiority of the British?
Why does Hamas keep on firing missiles from the Gaza Strip to Israel knowing that would only raise the ire of the powerful Israeli army which is always prepared to launch a counteroffensive and invasion of Hamas territory? Or why on earth do Palestinians and Israelis continue to engage in an internecine war without victory for either of them or lasting peace in sight for the region?
Writing about the Prussian campaigns of 1793 and 1794, Carl von Clausewitz had recognized war as a political phenomenon, fought for a purpose that was political, or at least always had political consequences. The recent Sabah incursion, the 60’s Lapiang Malaya assault, the invasion of the Falkland Islands and the continuing Hamas incursions on Israeli territory are not motivated by sheer madness or led by people who were simply on the fringe as De Quiros would conveniently suggest. No matter how commentators conclude their observations after the fact, the one thing that always stands out is the political nature or consequences of these military adventures, successful or not.
The Lapiang Malaya massacre, for instance, brought out the brutality of disproportionate response to an attack that was doomed to fail in the first instance. Why use the heavy arsenal of lethal weapons against knife-wielding attackers when they could have been dispersed by water cannons?
Lapiang Malaya consisted mainly of poor peasants who were disillusioned with their perceived oppression by the government and the continuing evil influence of Western powers. When their demand that Ferdinand Marcos step down was rejected, they took the matter into their hands and launched a frenzied siege of Malacanang. Nuts, yes, but the government’s response was beyond insane and inhumane.
Now that the Sultan of Sulu has declared a ceasefire, although unilaterally while the United Nations has also called for peace talks instead of continued violence, the arduous task begins in deconstructing the Sultan’s frame of mind and why he went bonkers, as many would like to suggest, such as De Quiros for example. Surely the Sultan knew that his supposed invasion of Sabah will not succeed, at least in the strict military sense. But why would he sacrifice the lives of his few good men? This is what De Quiros cannot fathom, thus he dismissed the military incursion as a farcical and insane adventure. De Quiros even suggested that the Sultan’s unwise decision to dispatch his army would have the lingering effect of jeopardizing the government’s initiative to forge peace with our Muslim brothers in the South. Perhaps, even rob President Benigno Aquino III of the glitter and international admiration of a possible Nobel Peace Prize, according to De Quiros.
The Sultan’s military misadventure obviously has a political purpose, if not at least the political consequence of disrupting the government’s implementation of the last piece of the peace plan with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Political, in two ways. One, the revival of a moribund claim to an ancestral land that had been relegated to the backburner by every Filipino president after Diosdado Macapagal, the only president who supported the Philippines’ claim over Sabah. There is both historical argument and documentary evidence that support this claim, except that the government has not pursued it either through negotiations with Malaysia or the formal filing of a claim with the international court. Consider too that the Malaysian government continues to make lease payments to the Sultan of Sulu, which my old friend and university classmate, Al Tillah, governor of Tawi-tawi, has confirmed. Although the amount paid to the Sultan every year is very minimal by today’s standards, what this means as a contractual obligation says a lot.
Map showing Sabah and the Philippines. The Sultan of Sulu's army landed in
Lahad Datu, an hour away by boat from the Sulu Archipelago.
President Aquino was caught flatfooted by the Sultan’s decision to resuscitate his family’s claim over Sabah, overreacting and even condemning the Sultan for sending his army to launch an alleged invasion. But anybody in the Sultan’s shoes would understandably be enraged with the government’s inaction, which implied the acceptance of the forgone conclusion that the Sabah claim is all dead and moot. If the Sultan was driven to commit lunacy, he could be forgiven because the present government is also largely at fault for doing nothing: for abandoning the Sabah claim which arguably could have been legitimate, until reversed by an international court, and for leaving the Sultan’s people in harm’s way and feeding them to the wolves instead of seeking a diplomatic solution. What else is new anyway with a president known for doing nothing?
Take a simple hostage-taking as a comparable scenario. What would the police or government do as its first response? Send in a negotiator to calm down the situation. Instead, President Aquino berated the Sultan like a child and let the Sultan’s army be annihilated by Malaysia’s military. President Aquino forgot that he was also endangering the lives of about 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah—Muslim Filipinos all of whom have escaped the on and off war between the Philippine army and Muslim secessionists which he now wanted to end through peaceful negotiations with the MILF. Forget about the Sultan’s claim over Sabah in the meantime. There is a peaceful mechanism to resolve this issue. But the situation in Sabah has deteriorated into a humanitarian crisis, a foolish war (as De Quiros is wont to call) between a heavily armed Malaysian army against a ragtag group of foot soldiers from Sulu. President Aquino should have been advised by sober minds on how to defuse the conflict.
The second political purpose or consequence of the Sultan’s foray in Sabah has to do with the present government’s cavalier attitude in forging a lasting solution to the Mindanao crisis. To the government, the only side that matters on the table is the MILF and the rest of the world is just a bunch of kibitzers. President Aquino’s peace panel ignored the Sultan and his historical grievance against Malaysia, the much-weakened but still alive Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the splinter group of rebel Muslims under the banner of Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), or even members of Congress and other civil society organizations who may have a stake in the peace process. There was no transparency in the government’s initiative to agree with one Muslim faction to the exclusion of others for a new Bangsamoro nation, a distinct geographical area carved out of the country’s territory and subsumed in a relationship of sovereignty association with the central government. And why has the government-friendly MILF been so quiet when their brother Muslims were being slaughtered in Sabah?
This latest Sabah episode only reveals the delicate cracks in the peace process that the present Philippine government has tried to sell to Muslim Filipinos in the South. By snubbing some Muslim groups which also have a huge stake in the peace negotiations, the Philippine government is resorting to the same deceptive schemes previously imposed by the Spanish, the American and British colonial powers on the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs to trick them in betraying their ancestral domain.
Since time immemorial, no foreign government, including our own Philippine government, has been fully honest in its dealing with the Sultan of Sulu, or for that matter with the whole Muslim population in the South. Is it any wonder then why the Muslims of Mindanao have always pined for their own free Bangsamoro, a nation separate and apart from the central government in Manila?

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