Commentary

Asean all quiet on the Sabah front

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Amid the spiraling chaos in Lahad Datu, Sabah, a crucial question has been raised which no one has yet explored: What can the Association of Southeast Asian Nations do? The answer is, put plainly and simply, nothing.

Asean is an intergovernmental organization. It emerged in the era of decolonization and postwar politics and was hence a pact among newly minted states who wanted to distance themselves from their colonial masters and build their nations in conditions of peace and stability. They fought hard to negotiate their borders between old imperial demarcations, ancient community kinships, and the strategic interests of emerging national elites.

The conflict before us today is ostensibly between Malaysia (a state) and Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of Sulu (a legal person). The former has effective sovereign control over a territory whose ownership is claimed by the latter. The fact that the incredible amount of P77,000 (said to be its annual “rent” money since 1878, or cession price, depending on who interprets the concept of “pajak”) goes to the sultan and his family and not to the Philippine government, methinks, uncovers the parties who are in direct discord.

Asean compelled its member-states to promise to renounce “threat or the use of force” with the adoption and ratification of the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation of 1976. This contract was succeeded by the Asean Charter in 2008, which effectively gave the regional bloc legal personality and provided its members with the rules under which they can “resolve peacefully all disputes in a timely manner through dialogue, consultation and negotiation.” It is essential to note, however, that, in the event of a crisis, it is the member-states themselves who must be the parties in dispute (Chapter VII, Article 23). Now the heavy-handed manner with which Malacañang has warned Sultan Kiram and his followers, who are presently held captives in Sabah, seems to suggest that Prime Minister Najib Razak and President Aquino stand their countries on the same side of the thin red line.

Furthermore, in case a scenario of conflict does arise, it is also the member-states who must agree to a resolution. And here we encounter another problem: Any settlement will have to be left to the good intentions of the parties. Asean has no institutional device for enforcing decisions. If the articles on the settlement of disputes between member-states are half-baked, the institutional resolution of clashes between the distinct entities outlined above will still be a long time coming.

Do the present circumstances, however, exonerate Asean from all duty or action on the escalating conflict? No. I believe there is another way to phrase the initial question if we want to be more helpful (and hopeful): What can the member-states do for Asean?

There are three factors for the leaders to ponder.

First, Sultan Kiram has deployed his small but loyal following to reclaim what they hold to be their ancestral homeland. The move is charged with profound symbolism both for them and our Muslim brothers and sisters in the South and will reverberate long into history, especially when lives have been sacrificed. The sultan has himself admitted: “I am the poorest sultan in the world.” This is not just about fair economic compensation; it is also an appeal to clarify what his title means to him and his people in the context of present geopolitical realities.

Second, Sabah is the second largest federal state of Malaysia after Sarawak. It is home to rare fauna and flora, tracts of timberland, and palm oil plantations—a beautiful place, I am told, but it is ironically also one of the poorest regions in Malaysia. This is why it made sense for President

Fidel Ramos to push for the East Asian Growth Area (EAGA) in the 1990s, so that it may spur an “economic corridor” among Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines (BIMP). The sociopolitical and economic costs for Prime Minister Najib are far too high for him to run away from this crisis, tail between his legs, like his detractors might wish.

Third, the Philippine claim to Sabah has not been “dormant”—it has been, in fact, erratic, subject to the vagaries of domestic and international politics, more than what should have been from the start a clear, consistent and firm conviction of Filipino ownership. Presidents Ferdinand Marcos dropped it, Corazon Aquino was somehow indifferent to it, Ramos wisely transformed it, up until the claims were overshadowed by the instability and corruption under the Estrada and Arroyo administrations. What is truly at stake for President Aquino in all this confusion is, I believe, the fate of the 800,000 Filipinos who are in Sabah and their future—whether they will continue to live peacefully or form an exodus to Sulu as economic refugees.

The house of Asean was built by states in order to keep the region stable and secure and inspire political, economic and cultural development. The problem of borders is not new. Indeed, one compelling reason for the birth of Asean was to end the  konfrontasi  between Indonesia and Malaysia for the control of the island of Borneo, where Sabah incidentally also sits. If the ingredients of peace and stability are threatened, then the heirs of Asean have all the reason to be perturbed: What is there to gain if the organization first falls short of its objectives and consequently delegitimizes its benefactors? A negotiated settlement will have to be more creative, preeminently humane, to unravel the deadly snarl on the region’s footsteps.

Asean member-states must first look to the Philippines, Malaysia and Sultan Kiram because those who are sure to stop further bloodshed are also those who stand to gain the most out of a promising future for Sabah. Creativity also requires calmness, stepping back, and gaining a new vantage point. They will probably be able to do this only if they take in a fresh mediator able and willing to listen, and listen again.

Brunei can be a silent, humble and confident go-between. It shares borders with Sabah (originally her own) and is knowledgeable in the gentle ways of Islam. Pure coincidence, perhaps, but Brunei also happens to be the current chair of Asean. This may be a case of crisis turned into opportunity. Will somebody in the house please—for the peoples’ sake—speak?

Kevin H.R. Villanueva is a university research scholar in East Asian studies and politics and international studies at the University of Leeds (United Kingdom). He was a member of the Philippine delegation under Ambassador Rosario Manalo to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission on Human Rights for the Asean Human Rights Declaration.

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