AP reported it objectively, telling it from both sides. “In Manila, Jamalul Kiram III told reporters that he was worried the violence in Sabah might spread because many Filipinos are upset by the killing of their compatriots in Lahad Datu. His daughter, Jacel, who is a sultanate princess, stressed the sultanate would never back down from its struggle to reclaim Sabah. ‘This concerns honor above life’.”
But it also left little doubt about where the reader’s sympathies are expected to lie. “Gunmen ambushed and killed six Malaysian policemen as fears mounted that armed intruders from the southern Philippines had slipped into at least three coastal districts on Borneo island. Two of the attackers were also fatally shot Saturday night, while another was beaten to death by angry villagers…. Concerns have grown that other groups from the Philippines’ restive southern provinces might enter Sabah….”
Reuter reported it objectively as well, but suggested the Kiram enterprise could be the spinoff of volatile Mindanao politics. “The trouble looks to be at least partly the result of efforts to forge peace in the southern Philippines…. Jamalul Kiram said the peace deal had handed control of much of Sulu to Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels, ignoring the sultanate. The sultan loyalists had gone to Malaysia to revive their claim to Sabah as a protest, in response to what they saw as the unfair peace deal, he said….”
That is pretty much how the world sees it. Which makes you wonder again why in God’s, or Allah’s, name the Kirams embarked on this. You would think they might at least have prepared some psychological ground for it, going on a propaganda binge beforehand to press their cause and get some public support. They have not, they do not.
Their incursion has little sympathy, other than in their minds. Not from the Malaysian government and the Malaysian people, not from the Philippine government and the Filipino people, not even from the Sabah people who they imagine have been clamoring for their return. Not materially, not militarily, not legally, not politically, not morally. However they talk of rights and honor, their people who have descended on Sabah in the dead of night and sent up a conflagration in the light of day will be seen as intruders, interlopers, gunmen, raiders, one of the thuggish elements in the Philippine south.
They will be seen as one of the unruly, ungovernable, and undesirable elements that continue to stir up trouble in their part of the country, whose intramurals or turf wars have just exploded beyond Philippine borders to engulf foreign territory.
I leave the longer-term implications of this for another time, but the more immediate one is there and it is scary. That is that with the escalation of the fighting, the extirpation of the intruders, the interlopers, the foreign gunmen becomes a very real possibility.
With the killing of several Malaysian policemen, you can imagine that it’s all the Philippine government can do to convince its Malaysian counterpart to rein in its natural reflex to send in its army and wipe out the small band of Filipinos holed up in Tanduao. If an armed party from Malaysia holed up in Sulu and killed several Filipino cops who tried to expel them, what would our government do? What would we do? What would the armed groups in Mindanao and various parts of the country do?
The Kiram group has shed blood in Sabah. They have killed a couple of members of the Malaysian security forces and gone on to kill six more cops in an ambush. That is an invitation to retribution. Hell, that is an invitation to obliteration.
That is the specter that faces us in the days to come, and I can only fervently, desperately, hope it can still be prevented. Which is to say, I can only fervently, desperately, hope the Kirams will see the light, or at least see the fate that awaits their men in their lairs, and feel enough for them to bring them home. Otherwise, they have just led sheep to slaughter, or their men to execution.
The near-universal lack of sympathy for the intruders’ intrusion makes it the most tempting option in the world for the Malaysian government. Indeed, the near-universal recoil at the murders of the Malaysian cops makes it the hardest thing to restrain the impulse of the Malaysian government to react the way the US reacted to 9/11, which is to vow to bomb the oppressors to the Stone Age. If that government does get to restrain itself from doing it, we will owe, and we will owe big. That is one of the longer-term implications of it.
But the problem in the end may not be the Malaysian government, it may be private initiative. Private initiative begets private initiative. Fanaticism begets fanaticism. The Malaysian government may be able to rein itself in, but not so its police, not so its private groups, not so its people. Not after the ambushes, not after the threat of more mayhem to come.
An additional concern here, which should truly make us worry for the fate of the Kiram group in Tandao, is that this is no longer a case of Muslims fighting Christians, this is a case of Muslims fighting Muslims. In the past, any Muslim group wreaking an atrocity in the Philippine south can always ignore or dismiss public furor and fury by saying that Christians, with their different traditions and culture, cannot possibly understand Muslims and are not the best judge of them. Christians do not understand sharia law, they do not understand the rido, they do not understand the ways by which Muslims in the south establish order and disorder, peace and war. Christians may impose their will on them only at their peril.
If the Malaysians, public or private, decide to wipe out the group in Tandao, what can they say?