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Subah standoff spirals from local to int'l issue

MANILA -- In just 10 days, the standoff in Sabah has spiraled from a firefight between Malaysian security forces and followers of the sultan of Sulu who landed in the village of Tanduao, Lahad Datu town, on Feb. 9, into a war of extermination mounted by both the Philippine and Malaysian governments, conspiring with each other, to evict the sultan's men under siege in their enclave.

In their first encounter in the morning of Friday, 12 of the 235 men led by the brother of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III were killed when superior Malaysian forces attacked them.

The Filipinos sailed to Sabah from Tawi-Tawi island, in the Sulu Archipelago, to press the sultanate's bid to reclaim its ancestral land in the former British North Borneo.

This is a curious conflict where the Philippine government has gone to war against its own citizens from the Muslim southern region, assisting Malaysia in its mailed-fist action to expel the sultan's followers after they refused to heed pressure/ultimatum from Manila and Kuala Lumpur authorities to leave and return to the Sulu Archipelago or face dire consequences.

This Malaysian-Philippine collaboration — in which the Philippine government has played second fiddle and subservient to Kuala Lumpur — in the gang-up on the recalcitrant sultanate's followers was clearly evident on Day One of the hostilities.

The first wire services and press reports on the shootout in Sabah on March 1 said that Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez told reporters in a press briefing that Malaysian Ambassador Mohammad Zamri Mohammad Kassim met with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at 2 p.m. of that day to inform him that “the standoff has ended.”

The DFA apparently took this report on its face value. There were no attempts from the DFA to inquire whether the attack on the sultan's men was carried out with maximum restraint.

Although details were to follow shortly, the DFA appeared overly anxious to see the end of the standoff. It was echoing the position of Malaysia, or acting as an extension of the Malaysian Embassy in Manila.

The Malaysians told the DFA they had resolved the standoff their own way, at the cost of 12 Filipino lives. The standoff turned into violence after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that his patience had “run out” after the sultan's men refused to obey demands for them to leave Sabah.

Preserving Ties

It was only later that President Benigno Aquino ordered an investigation to determine what really happened in Sabah in the face of conflicting reports from Malaysian authorities and the sultanate's followers.

Apparently disturbed by the violent turn of events and its implications on Philippine-Malaysian relations and the administration's initiative to set up a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao to end decades of Moro insurgency, the president held emergency meetings with senior Cabinet members to take steps to prevent the clashes in Sabah from further spreading.

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