Many Filipinos want the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to intervene in the Sabah crisis, which began when armed followers of the self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III occupied parts of Lahad Datu on February 9 and vowed not to leave until Sabah is returned to the Sulu Sultanate.
After waiting three weeks for the members of the Royal Sulu Army to voluntarily surrender, the Malaysian military launched a full-scale attack against the group on March 5. The continuing operation has claimed the lives of at least 62 people, including Filipinos, locals and Malaysian police.
The standoff created a humanitarian crisis, which continues today as the Malaysian police search for the remaining armed followers of the Sulu Sultan in villages inhabited largely by Filipino immigrants. There are about 800,000 documented and undocumented Filipinos in Sabah. There are reports that Sabah residents with Filipino ancestry have been harassed by Malaysian authorities who are desperate to catch the leaders of the Royal Sulu Army. The Philippine government has recently decried the abuses and discrimination allegedly suffered by Filipinos in the area.
As more Filipinos leave Sabah daily to escape the violence, many have asked ASEAN to encourage all parties to avoid further bloodshed and rescue displaced Filipino families. Indeed, ASEAN could use its powers of persuasion to remind both the Philippine and Malaysian governments of their obligation to ensure the safety of the civilian populations in both Sabah and the southern Philippines. ASEAN has also been urged to hold talks with all stakeholders in the Sabah ownership dispute.
But it may be wise to temper expectations about ASEAN’s ability to intervene in the crisis. After all, this is the same body that proved ineffective in stopping the human rights violations committed against Rohingya Muslims across the region. It is also the same grouping that remained silent after Thai and Khmer soldiers exchanged gunfire along the Thai- Cambodian border.
If ASEAN can’t manage to issue a joint statement about the maritime dispute in the South China Sea or West Philippine Sea involving its own member countries and China, how can we expect it to take a position on Sabah? Even today, Malaysia’s claim to Sabah is still disputed by the Philippine government?
Still, ASEAN could always surprise us by taking decisive action on the Sabah issue and leading international efforts to resolve the crisis. But if ASEAN refuses to be dragged into the row, perhaps it’s wise and even more appropriate to ask international institutions like the United Nations to step in.
In fact, some of the region’s disputed borders were largely resolved by the International Court of Justice, such as the Preah Vihear temple and its surroundings, which Thailand and Cambodia both claimed as their own; not to mention the competing claims of Singapore and Malaysia over the island Pedra Branca.
But this would take time and the humanitarian crisis in Sabah needs urgent attention and action. Human rights groups are concerned about the situation for Filipino migrants in Sabah, especially undocumented workers who might be wrongly labeled as members of the Royal Sulu Army.
The Malaysian government has barred Philippine media groups from covering the situation in Lahad Datu to prevent biased reporting. This has raised concerns that inadequate news coverage could lead to a cover up of serious abuses and human rights violations.
The UN and ASEAN must ensure that all state-enforced measures in Sabah conform to international human rights standards. Further, it is imperative that these international groups extend humanitarian assistance to affected individuals and families in both Sabah and the southernmost islands of the Philippines.
While it must ultimately be resolved, the best course of action for the moment may be to set aside the issue of Sabah ownership so that relief can be delivered to evacuees, refugees, deportees, and displaced families.