The loss of life in Lahad Datu last Friday was tragic, in the original Greek sense: It was inevitable. The standoff between a few hundred followers of the Sultan of Sulu camped out in a farming village in Sabah and the Malaysian security forces surrounding them had spiraled into a crisis, and a firefight was only a matter of time.
Much can be said about the liability of the present sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, for the deaths of his followers; his continued refusal to order them to stand down, even in spite of a final Malaysian ultimatum, looks likely to end with more blood shed, even more lives lost.
The decision to send armed men to reoccupy an area that is being leased—a fact that Kiram and his followers point to as proof that Sabah belongs to Sulu—was unfortunate; even a landlord can be guilty of illegal entry and the use of force if he decides to occupy the leased area without notice to the lessee or the lessee’s consent.
But the Aquino administration’s mishandling of the situation made a bad situation worse.
The followers’ mass landing on Feb. 9 caught Malacañang completely by surprise. This was partly a result of the limits of our diplomatic infrastructure; there is no consulate in Sabah, because setting one up may be misunderstood as a repudiation of the dormant but still existing Philippine claim to the territory. So up-to-date intelligence on the ground in Sabah was not available.
But the landing was a surprise also partly because of what seems like benign neglect of the sultanate’s role in the peace process being undertaken by the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Whether this neglect led to the sultan’s unfortunate decision to force the issue of Sabah ownership or not, it must be held responsible for the administration’s inability to piece together scattered bits of information about the mass landing and (more to the point) its consequences.
The real problem with the Palace’s approach to the standoff in Lahad Datu, however, lay in its glaring lack of sympathy for the sultan’s followers.
We do not mean that the Philippine government should encourage its citizens to break international law or provoke a regional crisis; the Constitution binds the government to a general policy of peace and amity when dealing with other countries, and no citizen—and we should note that not even Kiram himself will deny the full weight of history and refuse to be identified as Filipino—has the right to force the government to violate that policy.
But no government can ignore the sentiments of its people either. Regardless of the proximate cause, the merging of a sense of neglect (symbolized by at least two unanswered letters addressed to the administration) and a renewed sense of purpose (signaled by the mass landing of armed followers) has led to the crisis. In the light of the progress made in the peace talks, Kiram and his advisers seem to have concluded that now is the right time to press the Sabah claim anew. Was it really out of the question for the administration to condemn the sin but look compassionately on the sinner? That is to say, for Malacañang to strenuously make a distinction between the mass landing and the desires of the sultan’s followers? They are, after all, Filipino citizens.
Statements by Malacañang officials, however, have only reinforced the sultan’s decision to stay put in Lahad Datu; President Aquino’s own forceful statements have been most unfortunate.
When he appealed to the followers to “[c]ome back home and we will talk,” he inadvertently confirmed their suspicion that he did not understand what they saw as the core issue: Sabah as home. Indeed, there was no attempt to assuage the sultan and his followers that the Philippines will continue to honor the Sabah claim.
When he reminded the followers that their actions will be met by the “full force of the law,” he failed to give the sultan a face-saving way out. Granted, perhaps the whole idea behind the excursion into Sabah was to create an impasse, requiring international intervention. But the image of the chief executive employing the same language as the Malaysian prime minister was unsettling.
And, after the first firefight last Friday, when he ordered the followers to “surrender now, without conditions,” he gave the impression that he did not understand that they were in fact ready to die for their convictions. Tragically, that may be exactly what may just happen.