Who is right and who is wrong in the present armed conflict between the followers of the Sultan of Sulu and Malaysian police forces in a seaside village in Sabah where 27 combatants have already been killed? Two senatorial candidates who were guests at the Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel last Monday—front-running Sen. Chiz Escudero and Party-list Rep. Christian Señeres who is lagging behind in the surveys—gave opposing views.
Senator Escudero said the Sulu force should come home so that negotiations between the Philippine government and the Sultan of Sulu, on one side, and the Malaysian government, on the other, can begin as soon as possible.
Congressman Señeres said the Sulu Sultan is right. Señeres said he has long studied documents on the case and it is clear that Sabah belongs to the sultanate, and the Filipinos from Tawi-Tawi have a right to be there. Sabah is their home. Moreover, he added, they are Filipino citizens and the Philippine government should help them instead of threatening them with lawsuits.
As I see it, President Aquino made a mistake in telling the sultan’s followers to “surrender and go home.” He used a wrong word. “Surrender” is a bad word to Muslims, especially to our Moros. I don’t think there is even an equivalent word in the Muslim vocabulary. Muslims would rather die than surrender. They believe that there would be dozens of virgins waiting for them in the afterworld if they die fighting. On the other hand, surrender would bring dishonor not only to themselves but also to their families for generations to come. Never use the word “surrender” again to Muslims.
Also, many Filipinos are asking: What kind of government do we have that threatens its own citizens with lawsuits for asserting their right to their properties? They also ask: What kind of government do we have that threatens members of the clergy with punishment when they are only guiding their flock for whom to vote this May? The Commission on Elections (Comelec) has given the diocese of Bacolod a deadline (yesterday) to take down from the façade of San Sebastian Cathedral in Negros Occidental an oversized tarpaulin telling voters whom to vote for and vote against, or else face charges.
Senator Escudero said the Comelec is “overacting.” Isn’t the Comelec here curtailing the freedom of expression? What’s wrong with the archdiocese telling people whom to vote for and whom to vote against? Isn’t that what everybody is telling everybody else at present? Don’t politicians urge their listeners to vote for their candidates and vote against opposition candidates? Isn’t that what President Aquino himself does every time he climbs the stage and campaigns for his candidates?
The Comelec says that the tarpaulin is too big, beyond the size limits it has imposed. So the priests cut the tarpaulin into two—the Team Patay and Team Buhay, the former colored black and the latter colored red. So instead of one big tarpaulin, there are now two smaller ones. Isn’t that enough? Forcing the archdiocese to do more would be curtailing their freedom of choice and expression.
Besides, the reelectionist candidates were duly warned before the voting for the reproductive health bill. Members of the clergy vowed that they would campaign against legislators who would vote in favor of the controversial bill. And that is what they are doing now, making good on their promise.
Back to Sabah: Has anybody paused to ponder that the Sulu Sultan may have sent his followers to go to Sabah to force the issue?
After decades of being neglected by its own government, with the sultan growing older and the prospect that he may die without the claim being settled, he felt he had to do something. Just like the older generations of Muslims who were neglected by the Philippine government until they formed the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)—and later the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)—and waged a guerilla war and forced the government to notice and negotiate with them for a final peace accord, the sultan may have decided to wage a guerilla war in Sabah, recruiting Filipinos who are already there (the same thing that President Marcos planned before the Jabidah massacre) to force the Malaysian government to negotiate with them.
This is probably the reason the Sultan does not want to order his followers to “surrender and go home.” If they go home now without getting a commitment from the Malaysian government to negotiate later, they would be back to nothing. His loyal followers who were killed in the fighting would have died in vain. It would be back to decades of being neglected again.
I think the Philippine government would be able to persuade them to go home, temporarily, if it could get a firm commitment from the Malaysian government to negotiate on the claim. And Malaysia should stop behaving like Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan during World War II, annexing neighboring territories with impunity.