Sabah and the War of Meanings

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Sabah and the War of Meanings

Fighting in Sabah may have ended, but the war of meanings surrounding the Sulu Sultan’s claims is ongoing.

Two weeks ago Malaysian armed forces dispersed a group of armed Filipinos who arrived in Lahad Datu on February 9 to assert the ancestral claim of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III. 

According to Malaysian authorities, the clashes have claimed the lives of 63 Sulu rebels. But Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the Sulu sultanate, insisted that only 26 of the 235 members of the royal army were killed. Malaysia’s security dragnet led to the detention of 408 people who were charged for numerous offences.

In a related development, eight Filipinos were charged in the High Court in Tawau for attempting to wage war against the state and could face the death penalty for violating Section 121 of the Penal Code.

The standoff may be over, but it has created a humanitarian crisis encompassing both Filipinos and Malaysians living in Sabah. Malaysia's Federal Land Development Authority has 1,500 evacuees in Lahad Datu alone. The Philippine government reported that 1,500 undocumented Filipinos in Sabah arrived in the southern coastal towns of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi on March 13. 

Meanwhile, some Sabah residents are complaining about the impact of the military operations in their villages. Andrew Ambrose, coordinator of the Sabah Coalition of Human Rights Organizations told reporters in Kuala Lumpur, "Militarization and the presence of security forces have created many roadblocks restricting the movements of the indigenous peoples in their foraging for food, harvesting, hunting and fishing."

It is encouraging to see that Malaysia and the Philippines are cooperating to address these humanitarian concerns. However, it remains to be seen whether the two neighbors will sit down and tackle the Philippines’ dormant Sabah claim. The prospect of an international intervention or even the involvement of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to resolve the dispute is also remote. 

While both governments work toward a solution and all await the announcement of the final body count, it is probably worth reviewing how the conflict in Sabah was interpreted by different people. Perhaps this will help better understand the complexity of the Sabah issue and aid in recognizing the futility of reducing its significance to the public declarations of mainstream politicians. 

It is a fact that Malaysia is paying an annual fee of U.S. $1,500 to the Sulu Sultanate. Malaysia says it is cession fee but Kiram asserts that it is rent. Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has already advised the government to stop making the payment. 

While Kiram is ridiculed as the illegitimate ruler of the sultanate by Malaysia and international media outlets, in the Philippines he is widely acknowledged as the rightful leader. In fact, Kiram was even included on the senatorial ticket of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo in 2007. 

When Kiram’s followers arrived and occupied Lahad Datu, they were seen as invaders, intruders, insurgents and interlopers. Interestingly, however, they were not immediately labeled thugs, criminals or terrorists. When Philippine President Benigno Aquino advised the private Filipino army to return to their homes in Mindanao, Kiram asserted that they were already home.  

Malaysia started calling Kiram’s followers terrorists when its armed forces began dispersing the group on March 5. A statement released by the Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs reads: “Malaysia considers this group as terrorists following their atrocities and brutalities committed in the killing of Malaysia’s security personnel, two in Lahad Datu and six in Semporna, Sabah.”

Meanwhile, in the Philippines the “terrorist” tag is not the only word that has elicited controversy. Philippine Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Dinky Soliman y Juliano was criticized when she called them balikbayan (returning to country), a term reserved for overseas Filipino workers. Instead of refugees, some lawyers prefer to call the evacuees Internally Displaced Persons to remain consistent with the position that Sabah is still part of Philippine territory. 

The war over meanings will continue to intensify as long as the Sabah ownership issue is not settled. In the meantime, diplomats, historians, and politicians from all sides will continue to present evidence to bolster their contradictory positions to the public.

If Kiram’s followers intended to revive public interest and discussion about the Sulu Sultanate’s ancestral claim over Sabah, then we can say that they have succeeded—at least for now. Whether the debate generates anything beyond confusion is yet to be seen.