Handling the hype behind Sabah crisis


We need to constantly remind ourselves that this situation was never the desire of the Philippine government, and we should not blame the Philippines as a whole for what has happened.

Farish A. Noor, NST 

CHECK THE INFO: There are many actors in the Sulu saga and there is a need to separate fact from fiction

THERE are times when I do believe we ought to be more circumspect and perhaps even cynical when reading the news we get.

As the Sabah crisis continues at its own pace, different contenders have come to the fore offering their opinions as to how the crisis ought to be settled.

Among them has been Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), who was once a player in the regional dynamics of Southern Philippines, but who now seems to be taking the opportunity to foreground himself once again.

I was somewhat alarmed to read a report in the Borneo Post when Misuari claimed that “Sarawak is also part of his clan’s ancestral lands”.

I had to read the article several times to convince myself that my failing eyesight was not deceiving me and that the article was genuine and not a spoof.

Misuari had also suggested that he be given a role as mediator to end the Sabah incursion, despite his claim that Sarawak belongs to his clan.

Then came other reports about how the MNLF was threatening “chaos” in the region, and that 10,000 Filipinos would be sent to Sabah in a show of support for the pretender to the Sulu throne there.

Once again, I had to read the reports several times to convince myself that my eyes were working and that I was not seeing things.

In a state of crisis, one of the first conditions that has to be met is information management and verification of reports.

While sensational headlines may sell newspapers, they do not calm an already delicate situation and may, in fact, have the opposite effect of rousing fear and anger among readers or viewers.

It is for this reason that we ought to remember some salient facts that are pertinent to the Sabah situation at the moment.

First, Misuari’s MNLF is today a spent force, with around a few hundred followers left.

If Manila had chosen to broker a peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) instead, it was for the simple reason that MILF claims to have 15,000 followers and is perhaps the strongest armed force in Mindanao at the moment.

They are in fact the only power brokers and if peace is to be restored to southern Philippines, it cannot be done without the support of the MILF.

Second, the other splinter groups that have been largely responsible for the incursion into Sabah happen to be those who felt left out of the peace accord and who may have felt that they had been denied a slice of the pie.

This is indeed unfortunate, but it has more to do with who the government in Manila recognises as legitimate actors, and who are not.

No other country in Asean has the right to intervene in this process, but can only help it along by mediating when asked. Third, it ought to be clear by now that the incursion into Sabah was certainly not the desire of the Philippine government. As President Benigno Aquino Aquino has noted in his presidential address last week, the constitution of the Philippines does not allow for the creation of private armies, the ownership of weapons without permits, and the unilateral declaration of war on another country by a citizen who does not represent the state.

On these grounds, the incursion into Sabah has no legal standing and was, in fact, contrary to Philippine law itself. Malaysia cannot pick itself up and relocate itself in some other quiet corner of the world, and we should not deny our long historical and diasporic links to all the mobile, fluid communities that make up the complex social landscape.

Indeed, for centuries, people from Sulu have moved in and out of Sabah along with Bruneians, Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, Bajaus, Ilanuns and Bugis. What is at issue here is how an internal domestic crisis in the Philippines has erupted and spilled over into the territory of another country, namely Malaysia. The Malaysian public in turn may be wary or even angered by a Philippine citizen who suddenly claims to be their sultan out of nowhere, but we cannot allow our judgment to be clouded by fiery rhetoric, disinformation and propaganda that may be designed to upset us. We need to constantly remind ourselves that this situation was never the desire of the Philippine government, and we should not blame the Philippines as a whole for what has happened.

In the meantime, some of the stories that are emanating from the likes of Misuari ought to be taken with a heavy dose of salt too: the man who now claims to wish to mediate the crisis also happens to be the same person who, during his younger left-leaning days, was inclined to criticise the traditional rulers of southern Philippines for their feudal culture and elite status. The solidarity shown for those claiming to be the descendants of the sultan of Sulu seems hollow and more instrumental, as are the claims that tens of thousands of southern Filipinos are about to invade Borneo. If these leaders truly wanted peace in the region, they ought to begin by tempering their own rhetoric for starters, and stop making claims like Sarawak is also part of his clan’s ancestral lands.


Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and Philippines President Benigno Aquino witnessing the signing of the peace accord between the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Manila. Splinter groups that have been responsible for the incursion into Sabah happen to be those who felt left out of the peace accord.