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A case of scratching each other’s back?

In 1985, Tun Mustapha said perhaps the federal government
wanted to use Manila's claim on Sabah against its people as
a bargaining chip to make them behave.
KOTA KINABALU: With the 13th General Election drawing near, it seems to be a fishy coincidence that the Sultan of Sulu and his family have suddenly decided to revive their claim to Sabah as part of their ancestral right.
In an interview with the Philippines’ Daily Inquirer, Crown Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, reportedly said that they will have to pursue the Sabah claim on their own since the Philippines government appeared to have ignored their demand to include their claim to Sabah as an “integral and essential” aspect of the peace agreement involving “any armed group in Mindanao”.
Meanwhile, Malacanang maintains a dormant claim to Sabah. But who are these armed groups? Here’s a look at the historical facts.

The Crown prince claims the armed group are the “Royal Security Force of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. Their arrival on Sabah shores is said to have sparked one of the biggest security “scares” in recent years in Sabah.
Though they claim to have come without any violent intentions, their mere presence was enough to cause jitters among Lahad Datu residents, who, in past years, have witnessed several violent exchanges between Filipino armed groups and Malaysian military forces.
Since the ongoing stand-off between the Sulu ‘soldiers’ and the Malaysian security forces, rumours and text messages have been circulating in the east coast district and as far as Kota Kinabalu.
While some of these test messages warned for people to be vigilant, others talked about a shootout between forces concerned. So what are these ‘negotiations’ that the Malaysian security forces are talking about?
It’s a drama
To understand the situation, I made some inquiries among friends and contacts in the east coast town to gauge the “on the ground” situation. The result was they all knew very little of what was going on.
One long time resident of Lahad Datu who did not want to be named told me that the Malaysian military force landed at the Lahad Datu Airport and headed straight to the landing spot, some 20 kilometers from the township.
While describing the situation as “terkawal” (under control), she also said: “Tapi kami juga berjaga-jaga” (but we are on the alert).
A plantation manager of mixed descent who also preferred anonymity said: “Actually they (the Moros) used to come here unnoticed but this time one of their rivals in one of the many splinter groups informed the Malaysian government.
“Also, when this thing happened, people also started to SMS around and this caused a panic. In fact, nothing much is happening that we can see… its more like a false alarm.”
One man who claimed to be a former MNLF personnel and who has started a new life as a supervisor in a plantation, said he was rather surprised when this issue came up “because my own relatives in the Philippines are also unaware of this (incident)”.
“The (Malaysian) government kasih makan sama diorang saja ini (the government is only feeding them); ini sandiwara saja… apa hal ini? (its a drama … what is this farce all about?).
From the on-the-ground responses, the question that emerges is why has the current standoff generated so much hype in the first place? Is it because of the ‘secrecy’ of the on-going negotiations?
MNLF-M’sia connection
The number of armed men seems to have grown from 20 to between 80 and 150 as claimed by the Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein while others say the numbers are even more.
Hishammuddin compromised an earlier no-negotiation stance made by the Sabah Chief of Police Hamza Taib, citing as his main reason the need to “handle (the situation) wisely without bloodshed or loss of lives”.
It was a dubious move in the first place and now seems to have backfired. Calls here are getting louder for the resignation of both the Home Minister and his counterpart in the Defence Ministry, Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, over what the DAP has called their “shameful failure” to defend the country in the face of such blatant acts of lawlessness.
Another opposition party leader also called the stand-off ‘a “shameful failure” of the government to defend the country’s honour and sovereignty as well as the security and safety of the people of Sabah. But conspiracy theorists are hinting that this is actually a secret arrangement cooked up between politicians and the many rebellious elements in the Southern Philippines.
While it may seem far-fetched, there is historical precedence for such “cooperation”. Many point to the tacit connection between the MNLF and the Malaysian government stretching back more than four decades.
In 1968, news broke that Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) trainers had killed at least 28 Muslim military recruits during a mutiny at a secret training camp on the island of Corregidor. The Muslim Filipinos presumably were being trained by the AFP as a secret army to invade Sabah.
In 1969, Malaysian authorities are said to have secretly trained Moro Liberation Front members on Pangkor and Jampiras Island and a dozen more places in Sabah, as part of an covert strategy to prevent President Marcos’ attempts to pursue the Philippines claim over Sabah which was started by President Macapagal in 1962.
Patronage of Moros?
The support of the Malaysian authorities eventually led to the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by Nur Misuari, then, a political science professor of the University of the Philippines.
When Marcos declared martial law in 1971 and his quarrels with Malaysia over Sabah reached a new pitch, Tunku Abdul Rahman took the opportunity to place the plight of the Moros, represented by the MNLF, on the agenda of the Organisation of the Islamic Conference (OIC).
The Tripoli Agreement in Kuala Lumpur in June 1974 was the outcome. With this in mind, perhaps it is not too incredulous to speculate that the Malaysian government may have the patronage of the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA) since after all it did help put the problem on the international map.
The OIC resolution urged negotiations for a just and peaceful political solution for the Muslims in the Southern Philippines. Foreign supporters of the Moro cause channeled weapons to the MNLF and its military wing – the Bangsa Moro Army (BMA) – via Sabah.
The late Libyan dictator, Muammar Gaddafi, was among those at the forefront of these sympathisers. While MNLF’s foreign support has now dwindled, Nur Misuari is however still trying hard to revive the now moribund Bangsa Moro Army.
In the meantime, the Sulu Sultanate have kept alive a bigger bounty for themselves – Sabah – for which its descendants are still receiving a modest RM5,300 annual “rent”, which is interpreted by Malaysia as “cession payment”.
How much longer is Malaysia obliged to make such payment will depend on how the Malaysian Foreign Ministry currently led by Anifah Aman, who is the younger brother of Sabah Chief Minister Musa, handles the issue with the Philippines.
Federal government’s clever policy
But whatever the outcome may be, perhaps the testimony of Tun Mustapha in 1985 may shed more light on the present incident. The former Sabah strongman had told AsiaWeek then: “As far as I am concerned there is really no claim.
“It was settled in 1939 by the British Chartered Company. There is a high court judgment to prove that. I personally stand to benefit if the claim was valid as I’m one of the heirs of the Sulu Sultan. But I know there is no claim.
“The federal government I think has a clever policy on the so called claim. They don’t ignore it altogether but they don’t entertain it either. Maybe they want to use it against the Sabah people as a bargaining item to make them behave.
“If Sabah people do anything they can say ‘look, we will leave you to the Philippines.’”

The writer is a former senior researcher who is now involved in social work.

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