Bloodshed in Sabah and the peace process

Benedicto Bacani

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The biggest mistake that government and the MILF can do in the peace process is to continue to put the Sabah issue under the rug

Atty. Benny BacaniThe latest reports show that Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered that “necessary action” be taken against the Sulu intruders in Sabah. In the firefight that ensued, 10 to 12 “royal army” members and two Malaysian security personnel were killed. The standoff appears not over as the spokesman of the Sultanate of Sulu vowed that their supporters in Sabah will continue to fight.

Since the “invasion” of Sabah by the “royal army” more than two weeks ago, the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have been trying to distance the peace negotiations from the claim of the Sultanate over Sabah. Chief government negotiator Miriam Ferrer said that the standoff in Sabah will not affect the peace process since the unsettled claims over Sabah is a foreign policy matter that is outside the purview of the talks. 

The MILF was more blunt in describing the move of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu as sour-graping, putting their personal interests above that of the Bangsamoro people.   

In response to the claim of the heirs that claim over Sabah was not considered in the peace talks, the government and the MILF said that the heirs of the Sultanate were consulted on the developments in the talks. In fact, the Sultan of Sulu was even present during the public signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro in Malacañang.

It is understandable that the parties are zealously defending the talks because at this stage, the parties are about to sign the comprehensive peace agreement, the mechanisms for implementing the pact are in place, and expectations are at a fever pitch that Mindanao peace is finally to be achieved before President Aquino’s term in 2016. The PNoy peace train is on the run and no one will be allowed to derail it.

Yet this peace train has vulnerabilities and these are exposed more by this unfortunate incident in Sabah. 

Government’s claim that the peace process is inclusive sounds hollow when indispensable parties to achieving durable peace like the Sultanate of Sulu and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) feel left out in the process. 

How can the claim of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu be outside the peace process when the sultanate is the historical basis for the Bangsamoro claim for self-determination which is at the heart of the negotiations? 

Why must the sultanate’s claim be off the negotiating table when it holds promise for more resources to the Bangsamoro at the very least from the rentals paid by the Malaysians to the heirs of the Sultanate? Why would the Sultanate and the Misuari-led MNLF be treated like “spoilers” when they are a great source of pride and identity to the Tausugs whose fragile support to the peace talks with the Maguindanoan-dominated MILF could be further eroded by the bloodshed in Malaysia?

Malaysia’s role

True or not, the dominant perception is that by having Malaysia as facilitator of the talks, the parties have from the very start foreclosed any discussions of the Sabah issue in the negotiations. The peace process is handicapped by Malaysia being perceived as not being an honest broker in the talks because of its own interest in Sabah.

This perception is becoming more real when Malaysia resorted to violence to end the Sabah stand-off, sending off the message that its territorial interest over Sabah is primordial over its relations with the Philippines and its peace-making role in Mindanao. 

While the Philippine government exerted all effort to leash the heirs of the Sultanate to maintain its good relations with Malaysia and protect the peace process, Malaysia reciprocated by resorting to swift violence over patient diplomacy which it demonstrated as a Mindanao peacemaker.

For close observers of the peace process, the images of the contrasting roles of Malaysia on Mindanao is ironic: The Malaysian Prime Minister as the “godfather” to the government-MILF peace talks proudly beaming during the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro and the same Malaysian leader giving orders to the Malaysian armed forces chief who was once the head of the International Monitoring Team (IMT) tasked to oversee peace in Mindanao to take all necessary action to end the impasse.  

What’s at stake

The Sabah bloodshed will generate anti-Malaysia sentiments in the country and in the Bangsamoro which will hurt even more the credibility of the peace process.

In the aftermath of the Sabah standoff, the biggest mistake that government and the MILF can do in the peace process is to continue to put the Sabah issue under the rug and to discredit those who are critical of the process as  “sour-graping,” “matigas ang ulo” (hard-headed) and “spoilers.”

There is an opening to harness broad support and coalitions to the agreed negotiated peace formula in the Transition Commission where Malaysia is out of the picture.

The MILF dominates the Transition Commission and with their negotiators and consultants in the majority, it is practically given the blanket authority to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law for consideration of Congress. The receptiveness, sensitivity, and openness of the MILF to the concerns and feelings of stakeholders like the Tausugs, the Sultanate of Sulu, and the MNLF in the crafting of the Basic Law will spell the success or failure of the peace process. 

If the MILF wills it, the Transition Commission can potentially be the arena for genuine and meaningful intra-Moro dialogue and the building of alliances. –


Benedicto Bacani is former Dean of the College of Law of Notre Dame University and is currently the Executive Director of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance in Cotabato City.


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