Malaysia flare-up illustrates volatility 

(Today Online) – Stand-off might also point to dangers of other, perhaps larger flashpoints in region: Analysts

Malaysia’s move to launch air strikes and send in ground troops to flush out an armed Filipino Muslim clan from a coastal village in the eastern state of Sabah illustrates how border tensions across Asia can flare up in unpredictable ways.

Such conflicts threaten the stability that has helped underpin decades of economic growth, potentially complicating the United States’ bid to step up its military and diplomatic influence in a region where China exerts growing sway.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered Tuesday’s dawn assault after some 200 Filipinos claiming to be descendants of the defunct sultanate of Sulu dumbfounded Malaysia by sailing from the nearby southern Philippines to revive a 350-year-old claim on Sabah.

At least 27 people have been killed in clashes between the armed intruders and Malaysian security forces.

“Operations are still ongoing,” Malaysia’s armed forces chief, General Zulkifeli Zin, told reporters yesterday. “It’s not going to be easy because we have a big area to cover. Nevertheless, we are able to contain them so far in an area of approximately four square kilometres.”

Mr Najib struck an uncompromising tone as the operation got under way earlier in the day. “For our sovereignty and stability, we will not allow even an inch of Malaysian territory to be threatened or taken by anyone,” he said.

The nearly month-long stand-off is disrupting palm oil exports from Sabah, which produces 30 per cent of Malaysia’s output. Further violence could unnerve foreign investment in the state as well as damage Mr Najib’s chances in a general election due to be held by June.

The Filipinos appear to be standing firm on their claim. Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for self-declared Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, told reporters the group would continue to fight for Sabah, which they say was granted to Mr Kiram’s family by the Sultan of Brunei in the 17th century.

Philippine officials have urged the group to return home. “We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Mr Kiram’s people chose this path,” government spokesman Ricky Carandang said.

Some analysts say the stand-off should not have come as a surprise given the region’s historical ties, and that it might also point to the dangers of other, perhaps larger flashpoints elsewhere in the region.

Ms Glenda Gloria, a Manila-based author and historian, noted that residents of the Philippines’ Muslim provinces frequently travelled back and forth between Malaysia and Indonesia, trading and speaking a similar language before European and American colonisers introduced national boundaries.

Many Muslim Filipinos sought sanctuary in Sabah in the ’70s and ’80s while fighting a separatist war against late dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ government.

“Sabah was always part of their real—and imagined—community,” Ms Gloria said, pointing out that migrants from the southern Philippines now living in modern-day Sabah often refer to themselves as Suluks rather than Filipinos.

There are similar problems in other parts of South-east Asia. In 2008 and 2011, Thailand and Cambodia fought brief border wars that claimed scores of lives and strained relations between the two countries.

The cause: A dispute over which country should control a Buddhist temple after France decades ago demarked the border between the countries.

Papuan separatists in eastern Indonesia, meanwhile, are fighting to break away from central rule in Jakarta, while an ethnic-Malay Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand has killed more than 5,000 people since 2004 as guerrillas rebel against the annexation of the old Pattani sultanate by what was then Siam in 1902.

Dr Farish Noor, a professor at Nanyang Technological University, argued that in many instances, these conflicts are caused by old customs butting up against arbitrary modern national boundaries. “We South-east Asians are caught between a fluid region and a hard state,” he said.

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