The United Nations stepped in Thursday to end the fighting in Sabah before it turns into genocide: Malaysia’s overwhelming air-ground military task force attacking about 300 armed followers of the Sultan of Sulu.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called for an end to three weeks of escalating fighting that has left 40 people killed since the armed men landed on Sabah on Feb. 9 to press the sultanate’s claim to the territory as the ancestral homeland of Filipino Muslims in the Sulu archipelago.
The UN’s intervention came as Malaysian troops embarked on “mopping-up” operations after claiming to have “routed” members of the sultanate’s “Royal Army” in the air and ground assault launched on Tuesday. The Malaysian forces spread a dragnet over an area of four square kilometers in the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu. The men led by Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, were reported to have fled to the jungles of Sabah after the air strikes and heavy artillery flushed them out after a 23-day standoff in Tanduao.
Reports quoted Malaysian Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi as saying that the bodies of 13 men from Agbimuddin’s group were recovered after the assault, bringing to 40 the number of people killed in the fighting. There were fears that the mopping-up operations would lead to a massacre of the sultan’s men in the hands of the Malaysian military machine.
The UN’s intervention had an urgent tone. In a statement issued by his office, Ban Ki-moon said: “The Secretary General is closely following the situation in Sabah and urges an end to the violence and encourages a dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation.”
Ban also urged “all parties to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards.” He likewise expressed concern for the civilians caught in the crossfire.
The statement was silent on the dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia for ownership of Sabah—a matter that the Sultan of Sulu had said he would elevate to the UN.
In attacking the sultan’s men cornered in something like a concentration camp, the Malaysian troops spared no force in flushing out the intruders. The assault was mounted by at least seven army battalions augmenting police units. It started at 7 a.m. on Tuesday when five F/A-18 Hornet and three Hawk 208 fighter jets dropped laser-guided bombs, followed by artillery bombardment, on the sultan’s men, who were pinned down in a small area after a firefight with Malaysian policemen on March 1. The jets pounded the invaders’ redoubt with the fury of bombing their targets “back to the Stone Age.” It smacked of the “overkill” strategy used by the US Air Force to win the Vietnam War without engaging the army of the North Vietnamese national liberation front in land combats, which led to a large loss of lives. This strategy did not help the United States win the Vietnam War. In the end, the army of the North Vietnamese national liberation front marched to liberate Saigon after defeating the US and South Vietnamese troops in the ground war.
The fighting in Sabah appeared to be morphing into a guerrilla war, at a minimum cost of lives to the guerrillas, as the sultan’s armed men dissolved in the jungles to evade the aerial bombardment.
The guerrillas will tie down the regular Malaysian troops, together with their jet fighters and helicopter gunships, to hit-and-run combat. The Tausug warriors of the sultan’s “Royal Army” are not about to pack up their guns and gear and return to Sulu under the threats and cajoling of the Philippine government, in concert with harassment and military action from the Malaysian government.
For generations, the Tausug of Sulu have been crossing the porous border to Sabah, a territory they have long believed to be owned by the sultanate. They form the bulk of the 800,000-strong Filipino population in Sabah, and they know the terrain of Sabah like the back their hands. They know every little hiding place in which to seek refuge from jet fighters and pursuing troops deployed by the federal authorities in Kuala Lumpur.
The Tausug warriors now trapped in Sabah have vowed they would never surrender to the Malaysian army and the importuning of a spineless Philippine government that has caved in to Malaysian pressure. The government is using all its powers and influence on our Muslim citizens to “surrender unconditionally” to the tender mercies of the Malaysian security forces or face a bloodbath in the killing fields of Sabah.
The Tausug of Sulu do not need to protest very hard to prove that they would rather die than surrender their sultan’s claim to Sabah under duress from Malaysia. They have proved this conviction countless times in the past. They have demonstrated that they have more conviction in the legitimacy of our claim to Sabah than any Philippine administration since 1963.