Sabah and the limits of history

/ 10:08 PM March 04, 2013

Among the many commentaries and perspective-setting pieces I’ve read on Lahad Datu and the crisis in northern Borneo, I found five particularly useful. Some conflict with others on crucial points; each has a different emphasis—but all agree that history is alive, kicking dust in Sabah.

Last Sunday’s Talk of the Town featured a bracing survey of the historical and regional background by the eminent scholar Jojo Abinales: “It’s borders with long(er) histories, stupid.” The opinion columns that same day carried retired Chief Justice Art Panganiban’s distinction-making crash course between ownership and sovereignty, “Understanding the Sabah dispute.” Randy David’s “Who owns Sulu?” a column which ran a week before Panganiban’s, anticipated the inevitable follow-up question, about the impact of ownership claims on issues of sovereignty.


Two outstanding journalists who have done work in history have also written on the subject in other places: Ed Lingao’s “History catches up with Sabah,” on the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism website, is a reflective attempt to dig up “the roots of the dispute”; while Glenda Gloria’s “Sabah, Merdeka and Aquino,” in Rappler.com, trains the spotlight (rightly, in my view) on the role of, and our country’s relationship with, our “stern neighbor” to the south, Malaysia.

History is a living presence in these commentaries. After rereading them in one sitting, however, I came away with the inescapable impression, that even history has its limits. To phrase it rather crudely: History allows us to understand how we came to this impasse; over-relying on history will prevent us from breaking out of it.


The fact that what Abinales calls “modern categories” of identity and citizenship (Filipino, Malaysian) were mere grafts onto a much older sense of self (“Tausug, Sama Dilaut, Sama Delaya, Kazadan, etc.”) focuses our attention on “official tags [that are] skin-deep.” Both Gloria and Lingao, who both have considerable experience covering the area, share the same idea. Gloria speaks of “colonizers [carving] out superficial boundaries in that part of the world,” while Lingao writes of “modern governments… drawing lines on maps and calling them borders.”

There is no argument that these official identities have less historical weight, as it were, and are used, as Abinales says with an academic’s approximation of hyperbole, “only during elections and when they pass official immigration posts.”

But, realistically speaking, the older identities have very little bearing in any international dispute involving Sabah. It is not only the case that “national historians and ideologues” have promoted the idea of “the unstoppable march of national (and modern) unity,” as Abinales says; the international nation-state system is also and already an established fact.

In other words: The ancestors of Jamalul Kiram III may have had no choice but to accept a lesser identity as Filipinos (lesser because it’s only national, not regional or even imperial)—but that is how any dispute resolution mechanism would view him and his followers today. When he aspires for UN or US intervention, he cannot reasonably expect either the United Nations or the United States to treat him as other than Filipino.

He needs the Philippines to press that claim. Perhaps following the advice of inveterate troublemaker Pastor “Boy” Saycon, he has done exactly the sort of thing that undermines any “national” initiative.

I like the distinction Lingao makes between “ancient history [which] may appear to be on Manila’s side” and “contemporary history”—which decidedly does not.

Unfortunately for Kiram and his followers, it is contemporary history that will likely shape any resolution. The sultanate of Sulu “is not the same as it was over 100 years ago,” Abinales writes. “Then, it was a Southeast Asian entity; today, it is a Filipino caricature of its old self.” He points to the low number of followers mustered for the expedition to Lahad Datu, as one of several proofs that “the Sulu Sultanate has really diminished in name.”


As both Gloria and Lingao also attest, many of the hundreds of thousands of Filipinos living in Sabah do not welcome the prospect of greater integration into a Philippine state. Kiram’s tragedy, then, may be that his “historic claim” will be read by many in Sabah as not so much Sulu’s, but Manila’s.

* * *

I had the chance to catch philosophy professor Leo Garcia, the first lay dean of the Ateneo de Manila, when he lectured on Paul Ricoeur’s idea of “capable man” the other week. A few days after that, I also found the chance to listen to sociologist Randy David, a neighbor in these pages, discourse on modernity and religious faith at the Loyola School of Theology. I may not have the opportunity to write at length about their provocative ideas, but at the very least I hope to be able to upload the notes I took to my Newsstand blog.

* * *

It is a real pleasure to realize that some of the people running GMA News TV are animated by a strong sense of history, starting with the one who runs the entire show, channel head Nessa Valdellon. This Sunday, March 10, the channel launches “Bayan Ko,” a social-realist primetime soap that, in the words of the official news release, “tells the story of newly elected Mayor Joseph Santiago [actor Rocco Nacino]—who sets out to make a difference in the fictional town of Lagros.”

I understand the miniseries was designed precisely with the May elections in mind; it promises to discuss “such [perennial issues] as corruption, bureaucracy, malnutrition, illegal logging and political dynasties.” Unusual fare, and history in the making.

* * *

[email protected]/johnnery.wordpress.com

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TAGS: Foreign affairs, Global Nation, History, international relations, Malaysia, Philippines, sabah standoff, Sultanate of Sulu
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