At a campaign rally in Davao City on Wednesday, President Aquino used part of his time on stage to respond directly to criticism about his handling of the Lahad Datu crisis. “Hindi raw po ako maka-Filipino. Kulang raw ang ginagawa ko para sa kanila (They say I am not pro-Filipino. That I am not doing enough for them),” he said.
He may have been referring to criticism issuing from the family and supporters of Jamalul Kiram III, the Sultan of Sulu, or to criticism from other quarters (including this newspaper) about Malacañang’s initially confused, belatedly paranoid, approach to the surprise mass landing in Lahad Datu. It was hard to tell at first.
Then he said: “Ang gusto po yata nila ipadala natin ang ating buong sandatahan at samahan sila sa marahas na pakikipagbakbakan tulad ng pagtulak nila sa peligro sa
ating mga kababayan (It seems they want us to send our entire military and join them in a violent form of involvement, the same way they have brought our countrymen close to danger).”
We see what the President means. There really are voices urging military support for Kiram’s followers who had sailed to Sabah to reestablish a historical claim; these voices must go unheeded. The last thing the Philippines needs is to follow an unofficial armed incursion with an official one. Sending in the troops will not only rupture our diplomatic relations with Malaysia, which has been instrumental in promoting peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front; it will also jeopardize the dormant but still extant Philippine claim to parts of Sabah. In other words, it will be extremely counterproductive to the Philippines’ best interests.
We also appreciate where Mr. Aquino is coming from. Apparently, he sees the incursion into Lahad Datu as part of a devious maneuver, whether to derail the peace agreement with the MILF or to throw a spanner into the administration coalition’s election machine, or just to make life difficult for a popular President. The last thing he would want to do is to choose the course of action purposely set out—like a trap—for him.
But there are other voices of criticism. None calls for military intervention, except for deployment of more Navy ships to prevent other followers of Kiram from slipping by boat into Sabah. Many deplore the administration’s seeming lack of sympathy for Kiram’s people: They may be misguided, they may have been badly misled, but they are still Filipino citizens. All counsel closer attention to both the history of the Sultanate of Sulu and the much shorter and admittedly intermittent history of the Philippine claim.
When Filipino “drug mules” in China or lawbreakers in Saudi Arabia are sentenced to death, the Philippine government sends a high-ranking official, even the Vice President on occasion, to delay the day of execution or to offer so-called blood money. The unfortunate actions taken by Kiram’s followers in Lahad Datu made Malaysia’s full-scale military response all but inevitable; they were men (and women) who had invited themselves to their own beheading. But it took the Aquino administration some three weeks before dispatching Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to Kuala Lumpur. It is hard to understand this almost lackadaisical approach.
We appreciate the President’s candor when he said, on at least two earlier occasions, that he was studying the Sabah matter in detail and for the first time. But the admission was disturbing just the same. Doesn’t the administration have experts, or at least access to those experts, who have studied the matter in depth? This seems like a too-obvious question, but the administration’s initial confusion was painful and unsettling to watch and, again, hard to understand.
The decision of the President’s spokespersons to allege a conspiracy was especially upsetting. A conspiracy may in fact exist—but no one, not even officials in Malacañang, can raise the specter and then refuse to provide the evidence. The belated explanation that they would wait for proof before going public makes it worse; they should have waited until they had gathered the proof before making the allegation in the first place.
To criticize the administration for these shortcomings is not to accuse it of being insufficiently Filipino, or to call for immediate and massive military intervention. It is merely to raise questions about the fundamental issues of preparation and governance.