All stakeholders including the various heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, the Malaysian Government and the Republic of the Philippines will have to sit down and resolve the claim once and for all. They cannot simply sweep the Sabah incursion under the rug and forget about it. Failing to settle the Sabah issue will create a mirage of peace and security that is waiting to be shattered.
In 1967, Operation Merdeka was initiated by the late President Ferdinand Marcos. The main objective was to annex Sabah for the Philippines. The legal basis of the operation was the claim of the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs to Sabah. The Sultan’s heirs insist that the resource-rich land still belonged to them. They believe that it was simply leased (pajak) to the British East India Company in 1878 and was illegally transferred by the British in 1963, when it became part of the Federation of Malaysia (watch this video to get one view of the complexities). The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, being citizens of the Philippines, gave then President Marcos the mandate to reclaim Sabah as part of the country.
The standing policy of the Philippines on Sabah is articulated in the Republic Act 5546 of 1968, which provides in Section 2: “The definition of the baselines of the territorial sea of the Philippine Archipelago as provided in this Act is without prejudice to the delineation of the baselines of the territorial sea around the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty.”
To achieve the objective of the Operation Merdeka, Tausug (Suluk among Malaysians and Tausug among Filipinos, literally meaning ‘People of the Current’) and Sama Muslims (Moros) were recruited and trained by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) in Corregidor Island for specialised training in covert operations. The number of recruits differs ranging from 60, according to the Government of Philippines to more than 200 according to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Their order was to sabotage military installations and key infrastructures in Sabah for the subsequent invasion by the Philippines. At first, the recruits were unaware of their true mission. When they realised that their order was to infiltrate Sabah and fight fellow Muslims, they become mutinous. This prompted their military handlers to execute all of them and cover up the entire operation. Against all odds one of the recruit, Jibin Arula, survived to recount what happened.
As fate would have it, the late Philippine senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. (husband to the late President Corazon Aquino, and the father of the current President Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino III) exposed Operation Merdeka and the killing of the recruits. Although, the late senator condemned the massacre he never denounce the historical claim of the Sultanate of Sulu on Sabah. The incident generally referred to as theJabidah Massacre has wide ranging implications. Now President Benigno Aquino III is condemning the armed incursion of the followers of the Sultan of Sulu.
On the Malaysian side three things happened: first it created the impression that Malaysia can count on Moros in case of a military conflict with the Philippines as the Moros were willing to disobey orders and risk being killed just to avoid fighting in Malaysia. Second, the Malaysia realised that their best lines of defence against the Philippine annexation of Sabah were the Moros. Thus, training and equipping them to fight for a separate homeland became an implied state policy. In 1969, Tun Mustapha, a Tausug descent and the chief minister of Sabah at that time, facilitated the military training of Moros. With the help of Libya, who provided the financial assistance and military equipment, 90 Moros were trained in Pulau Pangkor, Malaysia. These Malaysian trained Moros called the Top 90 later become the core of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Third, the annexation of Sabah was only a distant possibility as long as the Moros will not cooperate with the Philippine Government. This thinking is reflected in the deployment of military bases within Malaysia. Most military personnel and bases are stationed in peninsular Malaysia and Sarawak with almost negligible numbers stationed in Sabah, reflecting the lack of threat coming from the area. These beliefs also created a porous border between Sabah and northern islands of the Philippines such as Tawi-Tawi and Sulu.
On the Philippine side, it crystallised the long simmering discontent among the Muslims in Mindanao (or Moros as they call themselves) into a secessionist movement. The Muslim Independence Movement (MIM) was organised in 1968 by Datu Udtog Matalam demanding the outright secession of Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan regions from Philippine control. Leaders of MIM subsequently formed the Moro National Liberation Front in 1969 – the military wing of the secessionist movement headed by Nur Misuari. Then in 1977 due to ideological difference, the late Hashim Salamat formed the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a break-away group from the MNLF. The ensuing conflict between the secessionist groups and the Philippine Government cost the lives of more than 100,000 people and massive destruction to the economy and development outcomes, not only in the conflict areas but in the whole Mindanao region as well. It also tied the meagre resources of the Philippines into fighting the secessionist groups. The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were unable to modernise (among several reasons) as most of the military budget were used in containing and fighting the secessionist threat. As a result, the military superiority of the AFP of the late 1960s over the Malaysian Armed Forces (MAF) is no longer the case these days. By far, the MAF is more advanced and modern than the AFP.
In a way, Malaysia managed to achieve its entire objective of neutralising the threat of Sabah annexation and ensure that the AFP is weakened, and that the AFP will not pose considerable threat in the event of future conflict – all of it by simply supporting the Moro secessionist movements from 1968 to 1972.
However, the cozy relationship between Malaysia and the Moros was shaken on 12 February 2013, when a group numbering around 300 claiming to be the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army lands in Lahad Datu village in Sabah, declaring they will not leave Sabah because it is their own homeland.
What had changed in the last 46 years? What pushed the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu to launch an armed incursion into Sabah? Who and what is working behind the scenes? And what is the ultimate implication of the Sabah incursion?