Does Australia care about what happens on its doorstep in Sabah? Guest blogger: El Tee Kay

Mar 20, 2013

Almost a month ago two hundred of the self styled Royal Sulu Army, some heavily armed, landed in a small coastal village in Sabah, Malaysia. They came from the nearby Tawi Tawi islands in the southern Philippines. Their objective was to “persuade” the Malaysian Government to recognize their “hereditary” claim to Sabah for the Sulu Sultanate.

The Suluk or Tausag tribes have traversed this narrow stretch of water as traders and pirates for centuries and many settled along the East coast of Sabah. The influx increased during the Moro uprising in the southern Philippines. This most recent invasion, it seems, has all to do with the Philippine claim to Sabah and reminiscent of President Marcos’s “Operation Merdeka” which was an attempt to launch 160 army trained Muslim youth from Sulu and Tawi Tawi to foment an uprising in Sabah in 1967. This plot went horribly wrong when this commando unit called the Jabidah found out they were to kill fellow Suluks. They mutinied and were apparently eliminated by their handlers. Coincidentally, Benigno Aquino Jr the father of the current Philippines President blew the cover of this covert operation and massacre.

The Philippines has not dropped its claim to Sabah and wants Malaysia to have the case adjudicated by the International Court of Justice. Malaysia dismisses this on the grounds of “effective” and “a’titre de souverain”.

The Manila government has said that the intruders and the Sultan will be charged under Philippine law but the Malaysian Government wants them to be tried in Malaysia. The opposing stands taken by the two Asean countries and the extradition process will be drawn out which will result in more political posturing.

The Philippines will hold its midterm elections in May. In an earlier election “Sultan” Jamalul contested a senate seat in the former President Arroyo’s Team Unity and lost. It is speculated in Manila that the “invasion” of Sabah is politically motivated by the opposition to embarrass President Aquino.

Malaysia will also hold its 13th General Election soon and as Sabah emerges as a key to forming the next government, both the Barisan Nasional and the opposition Pakatan Rakyat are accusing each other of treachery for political gain.  The Malaysian government has become prickly about criticisms of this long drawn out conflict and of its alleged mishandling of the incursion by a handful of invaders and the loss of lives of civilians and security forces. There is also the question of Muslim voter reactions to the use of force in dealing with the situation. President Aquino also has to deal with the influx of refugees to Tawi Tawi fleeing the conflict and the loss of Filipino lives and alleged mistreatment of its citizens by security forces.

Fortunately neither the Philippines nor the Malaysian Governments’ have upped the ante. This is in keeping with ASEAN’s collaborative approach but there are fears that this spat could escalate into retaliatory terrorist activities within Sabah by Suluks which could further strain relations with Manila. Some of the “invaders” are said to be veterans of the Moro National Liberation Front who have relatives and sympathizers in both countries

But a recent look at the Australian media suggested greater interest in a New York Court decision on sugar in drinks and a former British MP and his wife jailed for a traffic lie. Does Australia have a real interest in Asia unless it is for economic advantage?

El Tee Kay, Kuala Lumpur

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