We invite problems because we repeat our mistakes | Inquirer Opinion

We invite problems because we repeat our mistakes

The Occupy Sabah gambit by the heirs/descendants of the 17th-century Sultan of Sulu could not have come at a worst time.

I say this because this is election time, and the Sabah brouhaha has triggered an explosion of opinions and commentaries and perorations by politicians with easy access to microphones, telling us what went wrong and what should be done to defuse the problem.


It’s a joy to listen to the “learned” analysis of the political crowd from either side of the political fence. That is, if you wish to be entertained. Or want to pick up ideas on how to mouth tons of words yet leave listeners wondering what exactly is your point and stand: Go along with the move of Jamalul Kiram, or not? Yes, no, or maybe? Very likely none of the above.

I have no wish to add to the welter of opinions on why the Kirams and their followers did what they did, “invading” Sabah and giving the government a king-size headache. Nor opine what is the correct manner to handle the problem—which is threatening to worsen as blood has already been spilt—like what our armchair pundits do.


I just want to make the observation that we get hit by problematical situations from which we have difficulty extricating ourselves because we repeat the mistakes we made in the past when confronted with similar problems.

The most glaring mistake we make, or the government makes, in a crisis where lives hang in the balance is entrusting the handling of the situation to clueless, imperceptive, unimaginative operatives with questionable sensitivity and who are, moreover, not in the least culturally linked with the principal players.

Recall how the Luneta hostage crisis, where Hong Kong tourists were killed, was mishandled. Several would-be heroes appeared at the scene, none with a viable game plan and having zero knowledge of the psychological disposition of the hostage-taker. So the expected happened: a botched hostage rescue operation.

The same thing is happening in Kiram’s Sabah adventure. Here’s a group of cultural-minority citizens precipitating a potential disruption of normal relations between us and a neighbor-country. You’d expect that one who can identify with them, and understands their mores, their passion, their history, would be at center stage directing traffic away from violent collisions and to the negotiating table. Nothing of the sort happened.

Instead, we see preening on center stage a slew of persons naïve in the ways and ethos of a culturally different social group at whom they hurl inappropriate remarks and non sequiturs that are insulting at worst and laughable at best. One disrespectfully calls Sultan Kiram “matigas  ang  ulo,” another threatens to have the Sabah “excursionist” arrested for violation of the election gun ban, still another is for throwing the book at Kiram for nonpayment of taxes on the rent he gets from Malaysia.

Add to these unacceptable, anger-provoking remarks the call for the Sabah occupiers to “surrender unconditionally,” and you get just the right brew to make the occupiers more defiant and resolute not to leave Sabah peacefully.

I trace my ancestry to the ethnic tribe living in the Cordillera, and as they say, it takes one ethnic to know another, his psyche, how he feels or thinks about a given situation, how to provoke him into frenzied action or smooth his ruffled feelings, what to say to get him to do your bidding. I know why Sultan Kiram and his followers are reacting the way they do. We natives of the Cordillera will behave in exactly the same manner were we made to experience the same travails.


I go back to my thesis: The Sabah issue erupted and has deteriorated into a bloody mess because of little knowledge and even less regard for the cultural bent of the people of the South by those charged to manage the problem. The Peace Process Commission, which I would think has experts on ethnic culture, should logically be in the effort trying to untangle the knotty Sabah problem, but it is not. The commission’s head even misplaced, or lost, an important document, a letter of the sultan to the President which may have hinted at a doable request by the sultan to stave off conflict in the Sabah issue. Talk of the lackadaisical attitude and the carelessness of this government functionary on matters pertaining to people of the South!

Administration operatives are scurrying about in search of a solution to the Sabah brouhaha. The affair started as an “excursion” and morphed into a “migration,” and then into an “invasion” which the Malaysians tolerated for as long as they could, possibly in the interest of good neighborliness. In the meantime, the “migrants,” perhaps coming to their senses, were sending signals that they were amenable to coming home. The clearest of these signals was a request for a talk with the President.

BUT NO ONE IN MALACAÑANG READ THIS SIGNAL CORRECTLY. It was brushed off with a retort repugnant to Tausug warriors: “Unconditional surrender first before talk with the President.”

We don’t know how this Sabah drama will play out. We can only pray and hope that it will come to a happy conclusion. Which end, I believe, will be better served if no further incendiary or insensitive statements were made by Malacañang, and if the President will bring aboard experts in minority people’s mores, ethos and culture to replace the clueless dudes in the Palace who have been giving him bum advice on Sabah.

I hope this will be the last problem pregnant with potential complications we’d face again and again. I am not too hopeful, though. Problems of the complicated variety visit us often because of our penchant to repeat, and repeat, our mistakes.

Gualberto B. Lumauig, is a former governor and representative of the province of Ifugao.

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TAGS: Foreign affairs, Government, Malaysia, Mindanao, Philippines, Sabah, Sultanate of Sulu
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