Two events this past week may mark a turning point in the Sabah dispute. The first was when the Philippine government called upon its Malaysian counterpart to “clarify” reports about human rights abuses by Malaysian security forces on our nationals. The second was when the Malaysian government barred Filipino journalists from entering Sabah, only to relent a day later and allow them access to evacuation camps. These show that both sides realize that there is a global audience they must address and global standards of justice they need to satisfy.
Until then, the Philippines was hell-bent on appeasing Malaysia as the guarantor of its peace negotiations with Moro rebels, while disregarding other Islamic groups as nuisances. Until then, too, Malaysia had used Sabah as political football in the ongoing electoral contest between Prime Minister Najib Razak and the irrepressible and charismatic opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, each playing the nationalist card.
The Philippine government has been at a loss on how to respond to the irredentist claims of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. We had conveniently placed Sabah on the “back burner,” and rather inexplicably allowed Malaysia, our erstwhile protagonist, to serve as the not-so-neutral broker in our peace talks with the Islamic secessionists in Mindanao that bore fruit with the signing of the Framework Agreement for peace last year.
But Malacañang was also hard-pressed to pooh-pooh the claims of the Sultan of Sulu because it shows the fundamental lie to the vaunted Framework Agreement. Now we know that not all the stakeholders in Muslim Mindanao had been consulted, and that an important stakeholder—the sultan, his heirs and followers—had been left out. This is not surprising at that. After all, why would Malaysia broker a peace agreement where it would lose a territory so rich in natural resources? Even worse, the sultan, now accused of aggression and bloodshed, had apparently written Malacañang several times to ask simply to be heard in the peace talks, and indeed had even lent his support to the peace process. His pleas were ignored.
That is why Malacañang has been accused of acting as Malaysia’s handmaiden. All along, its audience was Malaysia, disowning the sultan’s folk and even threatening prosecution.
That is why Malacañang’s human rights call shows a sea change in attitude. Our government has officially decried what UP Prof. Harry Roque has called “crimes against humanity,” of undocumented arrests, torture and harassment. Now the audience is us, the sovereign Filipino people, and also the global human rights community. “Kayo ang boss ko.” Ah, finally, someone in the Palace remembered. Better turn down the arrogance, too, and don’t forget which side your bread is buttered. And already, Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, has called on the Malaysian government to either file proper charges against the detainees or release them.
On the other hand, Malaysia’s attempt to control the press coverage in Sabah reminds us that Sabah has been mainly domestic politics for it. Earlier, the Malaysian defense minister barred Filipino journalists from covering Sabah to prevent the “misreporting” that “strain[ed] relations” between the two countries. It has also been reported that Malaysian journalists have been advised by the Sabah government to refer to the Sultan of Sulu’s followers as “terrorists” and to refrain from identifying them as the sultan’s “royal army.”
The Inquirer later reported that the Malaysian government has allowed reporters from the Inquirer and GMA7 to enter the evacuation center, together with the humanitarian and consular team sent by the Philippine government. But yesterday, the Inquirer was again barred from getting into an evacuation center.
The Inquirer stands by its reports. These were gathered from the field, by journalists sent to Sabah to see for themselves the events as they unfold, and to report to the Filipino public the first-hand accounts of the survivors in the evacuation centers. The reports are fully documented.
It has been said that “truth is the first casualty of war.” Sure, there is no war here, just “internal armed conflict” or “internal disturbances,” to use the jargon, but if Malaysian authorities wanted to squelch the rumors about human rights atrocities, suppressing foreign press coverage doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Sabah is about genuine grievances by living human communities. A peace bargain that papers over deeply felt rancor will be a fragile peace, indeed.