Conspiracy Theories Surround Violence in Sabah

Mong Palation, The Diplomat

Philippine President Benigno Aquino and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak smell conspiracy behind the decision by some 200 armed followers of Jamalul Kiram, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, to occupy parts of Lahad Datu in Sabah.

Although Sabah is part of the Malaysian Federation, the Sulu Sultanate in the southern Philippines has claimed the state as its own. There are an estimated 800,000 documented and undocumented Filipinos residing in Sabah. 

Kiram’s armed followers arrived in Lahad Datu on February 9 and vowed not to leave until the sultanate’s claim is settled. After waiting three weeks for the private soldiers to surrender voluntarily, the Malaysian armed forces launched ground and air strikes yesterday. According to reports, as many as 8 Malaysians and 19 Filipinos have been killed in the fighting over the past week. 

The death of Filipinos in Sabah may have forced Aquino to appear on national television to defend the Philippine government’s refusal to support the “hopeless cause” of Kiram’s followers. Aquino also hinted that his government is building a case against certain “persons of interest” who might have provoked the Sultan of Sulu to order his men to occupy Lahad Datu.  

In a press conference on March 4, Aquino said: “We are aware that there are those who conspired to bring us to this situation – a situation that has no immediate solutions. Some of their identities are clear to us, while others continue to skulk in the shadows. The family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram could not possibly have settled on this course of action alone.”

Aquino added that the government is verifying reports suggesting the involvement of people connected to the administration of former President Gloria Arroyo. He warned, “To the people who are behind this, even now, I tell you: you will not succeed. All those who have wronged our country will be held accountable.”

Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is suspicious about the timing of the Sabah incursion, which took place just as Malaysian political parties are preparing for general elections due in June. Some opposition figures have been accused of instigating the crisis by encouraging Kiram to take drastic action in Sabah in exchange for autonomy once the opposition coalition grabs power this year. 

The opposition rejected the charge and turned the tables back on Najib and the ruling party. The opposition accused Najib’s government of launching a full-scale attack against the so-called Royal Sulu Army to divert attention from the army’s failure to protect the country’s borders. They also accused the ruling coalition of exploiting the issue to win the support of Malaysian voters – especially in Sabah where the opposition is slowly making inroads. 

The timing of the violence in Sabah – during election season in both Malaysia and the Philippines – has created an atmosphere in which everything that political actors involved in the drama say or do can be reduced to an election stunt.

In normal circumstances, conspiracy theories can be readily dismissed. The picture is blurred, however, when the sources of such theories are no less than the president and prime minister of two neighboring countries.

There may well be conspirators and traitors in the two countries and arrests might soon take place. But the Sabah dilemma won’t easily go away. Conspiracy or not, the lesson is that it’s no longer acceptable for Malaysian and Filipino politicians to deliberately avoid tackling the issue of Sabah ownership.

Perhaps the time has come to settle this debate once and for all. The escalating violence in Lahad Datu should embolden the leaders of both countries to work out a lasting solution to this persistent problem. 

Should they fail to do so, there appears to be no lack of those who would continue to ignite the dispute in Sabah to advance their own interests.