Following Tuesday’s assault, headlines in the Philippine press will likely reflect the severity of the situation that many view as a battle between Filipinos and Malaysians, with Aquino doing little to help his countrymen.
Meanwhile, Malaysia’s approach to handling the situation has been viewed as heavy-handed outside the country but too lax at home.
When the sultan’s followers first landed, the Malaysian government ordered police to surround the group, with initial orders to keep the army withdrawn to avoid escalating the situation. They also imposed a food blockade aimed at flushing out the insurgents.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Speaking during an election campaign visit to Sabah on February 14, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak emphasized the need for a peaceful solution which he backed with a gentle warning.
“In terms of strength, we have the upper hand in combat power to arrest them, but the government opts for negotiation to break the stalemate so that they leave peacefully to southern Philippines,” Malaysian state news agency Bernama quoted Najib as saying. Najib’s comments in this instance were the only time Malaysia’s leader spoke publically about the crisis before the death toll started to climb on Friday.
On Tuesday, as warplanes attacked the Sultan’s supporters, only 30 of whom were reported to be armed, Najib attempted to justify the assault in democratic terms.
“The government has to take the appropriate action to protect national pride and sovereignty as our people have demanded,” he said in a statement issued through state news agency Bernama.
Najib’s handling of the crisis is seen domestically as a critical test of his leadership – especially in Sabah – ahead of a tightly fought general election due by the end of June.
On Sunday, the prime minister retaliated after the main opposition accused the ruling United Malays National Organization of staging the shootout as part of a pre-election set-piece designed to rally Malaysians around the administration. This claim has been fuelled by overt propagandizing. Immediately after Friday’s shootout, the government claimed it had captured 10 insurgents and that the standoff was over after the sultan’s supporters had fled back to the Philippines, an account which proved to be entirely false.
Although a recent survey by the Merdeka Institute in Kuala Lumpur found 70 percent support among ethnic Malays for the ruling United Malays National Organization, Jerry Kamijan, deputy chief editor of the New Sabah Times, said that the longer the crisis drags on, the more people will criticize the government’s handling of it.
“There is a lot of concern on the ground,” he said. “It is as if we have been held to ransom by the intruders.”
While Kamijan dismisses the sultan’s move as an attempt to extract money, supporters say the strengths of the sultan’s claims are historic and reportedly significant. The Malaysian Embassy in Manila pays 5,300 ringgits (US$1,715) to the sultanate every year, the terms of the British colonial-era deal. There is also the question of the large Filipino population in Sabah, particularly in the disputed area.
No one knows just how many Filipinos live in Sabah – many are illegal – but in calling for a lasting solution, Philippine senators on Saturday put the figure at more than 800,000, out of a total population of 3.2 million. This suggests that around a quarter of the population of Sabah are Filipinos, who mostly live in the disputed eastern side of the state.
“A just and peaceful resolution of the sovereign claim of the Sulu Sultanate … will remove a thorny issue that has caused much uncertainty in the relationship between Malaysia and the Philippines,” Amina Rasul, president of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy, said in a statement.