Malaysia: Government efforts continue to end Sabah incursion

Updated On: Mar 21, 2013

Over 100 people who have been arrested in connection with the Feb 12 Sulu armed intrusion in Sabah, are likely to face charges soon, Malaysian authorities said on Wednesday.

A four-day lull in the Malaysian operation ‘Ops Daulat’ was broken when a gunman was shot dead by security forces on Sunday, bringing the number of Sulu gunmen in Sabah killed to 62.

Security forces are reported to be conducting house-to-house checks for remaining gunmen, who are believed to have split up to avoid detection in the state. Police are searching in particular for the Sultans brother A. Kiram who was first thought to have slipped back to the Philippines but may still be in Sabah.

Since an air and ground assault on 5th March failed to end the incursion, Malaysia’s decision to launch a large strike, rather than send in lower-key police and counter-insurgency operations, has come into question.

Malaysian security forces have been also accused of alleged human rights violations against Filipino migrants. Malaysian officials, however, have denied that Filipinos living in the disputed area are being maltreated.

There is concern that a humanitarian emergency may ensue should Malaysia continue its operations. Hundreds of illegal immigrants who moved to Sabah seeking better jobs are returning to the Philippines for fear of repercussions by authorities. Last Wednesday, Aquino reportedly ordered government officials to stock up on food supplies and step up humanitarian support.

Philippine governments had let a claim to Sabah by the Sultan of Sulu lie dormant over recent years not least because Malaysia has been helping to broker a peace deal between the Filipino government and the MILF. A preliminary peace agreement signed last year made no mention of the claim to Sabah. Since previous Filipino governments had pressed the sultans claim, he felt slighted and ordered an incursion into a coastal village on the coast of Sabah.

Domestic implications

The standoff has shocked Malaysians and been a source of embarrassment to Premier Najib Razak, who must call elections by June. Questions have been raised over how the clan members were able to land in Sabah and takeover a village, fueling perceptions of lawlessness and poor border security in the state. If the situation worsens, the government may lose votes. Some believe Sabah is where the election may be won or lost.

President Aquino is being forced to appease those amongst the general population, who support Filipino claims to Sabah. Some have already attacked the president for his less “nationalistic” view of the Sabah claim. Having initially accepted that the stand-off may not be ended by negotiation, Aquino has now called for peaceful dialogue saying negotiations are the best way to resolve the conflict in the face of widespread domestic criticism that he has done little to help end the bloodshed.

Avoiding a repeat
According to Farish Noor, Associate Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, the incursion is due to internal Philippine power play and Malaysia has been drawn into the mess.

In his opinion, the security operation to deal with the operation has passed mid-point stage, and mop up operations now underway. In order to avoid a repeat, Malaysia, and indeed other ASEAN countries need to know their neighbours better, no longer be so isolationist, and recognise that the internal politics of neighbours may have an impact upon others.

Questions have been raised about the role of ASEAN and powers in the region to mediate, as so far the issue has been left largely to the two governments. While lacking specialised tools and personnel to broker peace manage conflicts, some have said that ASEAN should avoid putting problems like the Sabah question on hold for many years, and resolve disputes once and for all. Since ASEAN has many issues on its agenda, it may wish to stay out of the Sabah issue for now, but it must be ready to react, should the situation escalate.

Report: Kiram tells Sulu followers to conduct guerrilla warfare in Sabah (The Malaysian Insider, 18 March 2013)

Report: 107 to be charged over Sabah incursion (20 March 2013, Asiaone)

Opinion: We need to know our neighbours in Asean better (New Straits Times, 18 March 2013)