There’s the Rub

Not a very good idea

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I can only hope that by this time the followers of Jamalul Kiram have withdrawn peacefully from Tanduao in Sabah. Theirs is a no-win situation. They can neither win a physical nor moral victory by remaining there. They can neither gain territory nor sympathy by remaining there.

Their armed incursion is counterproductive. At the very least, as nearly every observer has pointed out, their timing sucks. The Philippine government stands on the threshold of forging one of the most vital agreements in history, one that could end the centuries-long war between government and the Muslim rebels of Mindanao. Indeed, one that could finally put an end to the latter’s secessionist stirrings, persuading them to take the giant leap, or paradigm shift, of seeing themselves as part of the Philippine polity, albeit with a wide latitude for self-governance. You would imagine everyone would exert themselves to make this dream come true.

This one does not. The incursion into Sabah undercuts it, undermines it, subverts it. Crucial to clinching the peace agreement—one incidentally that still has quite a long way to go; government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) are merely at the stage of discussing the shape and form and size of the Bangsamoro entity—is the help of Malaysia in it. It was Malaysia that brokered it, it was Malaysia that hosted the preliminary talks, it was Malaysia that persuaded the MILF to see the light. And it is Malaysia that Kiram’s group is pissing off.

It’s enough to give credence to speculation that the group was goaded and possibly funded into doing it by groups opposed to the peace agreement, not least the Moro National Liberation Front. But even if it did not, it puts a dampening effect on relations between the Philippine and Malaysian governments, if not indeed a barrier between them. That cannot augur well for the agreement. Nothing can be more badly timed.

Just as well, it undercuts, undermines and subverts the Philippine position in its territorial conflict with China. It makes us out, and not China, to be given to expansionism, to be a little addled about what is ours and what is not, and perfectly willing to indulge in aggressive and preposterous adventures to claim what we delude ourselves to be ours. At least it opens us to that charge, and various Chinese quarters have been quick to jump at that opening. Why shouldn’t they? Again, nothing can be more contretemps.

At the very most, the substance doesn’t make things better.

First off, Kiram’s claim is based on a 19th-century colonial document that says North Borneo belongs to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu. Colonial documents are always tricky stuff. Not least because they tend to acquire all sorts of legal encrustations over the centuries, making resolutions the hardest thing in the world. A legal axiom says that possession is nine-tenths of the law. Not even Ferdinand Marcos, with his propensity to supplement legal measures with thuggish ones, managed to get far in laying a claim to Sabah. Quite incidentally, that legal axiom, possession is nine-tenths of the law, is the bedrock of our claim to the Kalayaan Islands: they have “always been ours” for as long as we can remember. Why should we want to undermine it?

More than that, you base a legal claim on colonial documents, you recognize, acknowledge, uphold the legal and moral validity of colonialism itself. What in fact is colonialism? However it is justified, it is the naked seizure, grabbing and annexation of territory by the strong from the weak. I’ve always been leery of claims based on colonial documents on that ground. I’ve always thought the better tack, particularly in these postcolonial times, when hindsight allows us 20-20 vision, is to condemn the arrangements it made as being founded on a crime.

Whence, for example, came the moral and legal right of Spain to sell the Philippines to the United States for $20 million? Particularly when it was facing a full-blown revolution that was on the cusp of victory? Did that sale naturally make the Philippines an American property? Resting your claim on a colonial document is not unlike insisting on your right to a stolen good that a thief has fenced because you bought it in good faith.

Second off, which is the irony of it, the claim to Sabah is not being made on behalf of the Philippine government, it is being made on behalf of the Sultan of Sulu. Those who clamor loudly that the Philippine government should revive its claim to Sabah in light of Kiram’s initiative should be mindful of this. The fact that the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu are invoking an agreement with Britain shows they are doing so not as private property owners but as a very public one—as a political entity no less. You do not make an agreement or treaty with a private individual or group, you make it with a nation or political group. The armed incursion into Sabah doesn’t just force the Malaysian government to recognize the Sultan of Sulu’s presumed property rights, it forces the Philippine government to recognize the presumed existence of the Sultanate of Sulu.

But of course the Philippine government can’t possibly support this adventurism, if for no other reason than this. At a time when we’ve just succeeded in persuading the Muslims in Mindanao to give up secessionism and think of integration, we want to complicate matters by creating a new and separate “government”?

And finally, the inhabitants of Sabah have regarded themselves as Malaysians for as long as they can remember. The question isn’t even if they would rather become Filipinos instead after all this time, which defies logic. The question is if they would rather become subjects of the Sultan of Sulu, which defies sanity.

All in all, not a very good idea.

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