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Security Outlook on the Sabah Dispute

The situation in Sabah has turned from dire to worse. Armed fighting erupted as Malaysian security forces are continuously engaging the followers of the Sultanate of Sulu. This has resulted to growing security concerns for both the Philippines and Malaysia.

The Standoff and Conflict

The whole situation started when at least 200 followers of the Sultanate of Sulu encamped in an area in Lahad Datu in Sabah on February 14. Sultan Jamalul Kiram has asserted his clan’s ownership of Sabah and has appealed to the Malaysian government on the matter. The Philippine government, on its part, has asked Malaysia to enforce maximum tolerance while incessantly asking the Sultanate to return to Sulu and resolve the dispute in a peaceful manner.

A three-week standoff ensued. The Malaysian government imposed several deadlines for the group to return to the Philippines but the resolute group remained despite the ultimatum given. Gunfight erupted on March 1 as security forces approached the house where the group is encamped. Fighting has also erupted in other areas in Sabah. The skirmishes between security forces prompted the Malaysian Government to implement the Internal Security Act (ISA). Security operations by Malaysian security forces are ongoing and a news blackout is in effect.

As military offensives continue, it is expected that the number of casualties will rise. Unfortunately, the news blackout cannot give a larger scope about the situation. As of yesterday, it was reported that there are at least 60 dead.

Last March 6, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has issued a statement “urging an end to the violence and encouraging dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation.” The Secretary-General also expressed concern on the impact of the dispute on civilians and migrants in the region,  and has urged all parties to “facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights.”

Last March 7, almost a week after the start of the fighting, Kiram declared a unilateral ceasefire but the Malaysian government rejected it and called for unconditional surrender or be wiped out, literally.

Compounding Problems

Since the ISA has prompted a news blackout, the Malaysian government is the sole source of news and information on what is happening on the ground. Both local and foreign media are not allowed to enter areas where security operations are ongoing. Their movement is also limited and monitored as seen when the news team of Al Jazeera was detained. Freedom of the press was limited with the implementation of the ISA. Because of this, the extent of the conflict cannot be fully determined and so as the humanitarian situation. The news blackout imposed by the Malaysian government is more on censorship in order to effectively control the media. The Malaysian media has been streaming hour by hour news accounts from the battlefield. Calling the area of engagements as ground zero while labeling the armed men as terrorists or Filipino intruders.

A humanitarian crisis is in effect as conflict brings suffering to non-combatants. As in any conflict, collateral damage and human rights violations are very likely to happen. Because there is a news blackout and no independent media has access to information, it is hard to know and verify reports of human rights violations and situation of displaced families. Also, international humanitarian organizations could not be mobilized without information. But the people with humanitarian needs, either the Sultanate’s followers, illegal Filipino settlers, legal migrants, and  Malaysians themselves,  are in Sabah.  Ironically, those who are assumed by Philippine government as needing humanitarian assistance were marked to be wiped out by the Malaysian government.

On another note,political implications arose as both Malaysia and the Philippines have upcoming elections. The conflict will surely be hot topic in election debates. In the Philippines, the opposition criticized the weak and indecisive policy of the administration. The way the administration treated the Sultanate also drew flak. In Malaysia, the administration and opposition are putting blame on one another on why the situation escalated.  The Malaysian administration drew criticism on how they handled the intrusion of the Sultanate’s men while the opposition is suspected of instigating the standoff with the Sulu Sultanate. Amusingly, both current Philippine and Malaysian administrations are accusing their respective political opponents for masterminding the incursion of the Sultanate’s group.

Security Outlook

Though a total gun ban is being implemented because of the upcoming elections, the government cannot employ the ban on secessionist groups like the MNLF and MILF.  This is also compounded by the fact that Mindanao has the greatest concentration of loose firearms following decades of conflict. The Philippine government has been appealing and trying to press charges on illegal possession of firearms to discourage Muslim Filipinos into entering the conflict.

Though the fighting is between Muslims of both sides, the fighters from the Sultanate are Tausug in ethnicity. Tausug population is spread in Muslim Mindanao and Sabah. The ongoing conflict can polarize Tausugs in the area and make them fight the Malaysians. If more and more Tausugs get polarized and agitated, the fighting in Sabah can spill over to the Southern Philippines. The cultural element of Rido or clan retaliation can play a part in escalating the conflict as more Tausugs fall.

In the cyber world, cyber attacks have happened between Filipino and Malaysian patriot hackers which resulted to the defacement of several websites from both countries. Cyber attacks would likely continue as long as the Sabah conflict remains unresolved.

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Moro rebel group in a pact with the Philippine government, has denied involvement in the conflict but has reported that many of its members are willing to join the fighting in Sabah.  The Philippine and Malaysian navies have enforced a blockade to prevent MNLF members and other individuals from enforcing the Sultanate’s group. The two navies will have a hard time in performing such blockade because of limited assets and the porous and vast sea borders shared by Sulu and Sabah.

Meanwhile, the dispute’s effect on the Bangsamoro peace process will still be determined by the course of the conflict. As of now, the situation in Sabah has no immediate effect in the peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But if the situation escalates, the Malaysian-brokered peace deal is in danger. It is not certain whether the MNLF have expressed their support to the Sultanate’s cause since the latter has  been “left out of the peace deal.” The Bangsamoro region is set to replace the ARMM which was the product of the peace deal of the MNLF during the 90s. If fighting spills over in Mindanao, then the Government would have to deal again with the MNLF. Dealing with the MNLF this time would be different because MNLF may not be supported by Malaysia. Or, will the MILF and MNLF fight side by side the Sultanate’s royal army against the Malaysian security forces? Both MILF and MNLF once demanded separation from the Philippines while the Sultanate’s bid is Sabah for the Philippines.

As for Filipinos in Sabah, there have been reports that they were affected by crackdowns by the Malaysian government. Filipinos were reported to be rounded up and even discriminated by their employers. Passport processing services for Filipinos were also suspended. There is no Philippine consulate to handle the concerns of Filipinos in the area and there is little that the Philippine government can do for Filipino citizens in conflict-affected Sabah. Such treatment will open the bitter wounds that the Tausugs have been getting from the Malaysians. The Filipinos have been complaining of human rights abuses under the hands of Malaysian authorities.

The borders of Philippines and Malaysia have long been a playground for human trafficking, smuggling, and terrorism among others. Now, the fighting in Sabah has become a new national concern for both countries. The United Nations have issued calls for restraint which Malaysia did not heed. It instead elevated its ultimatum to total annihilation. It is in the best interest of the two states to resolve the conflict immediately. But the effectiveness of Malaysia’s security operations is doubtful and hard to determine given the ongoing media blackout. As the fighting continues, the outpour of casualties and human rights violations caused by conflict might promote ethnic militancy.  Such militancy could aggravate the situation further and undermine the region’s peace and order. The situation now is a larger ticking time bomb.