Sabah Under Siege


18 March 2013

With Malaysia’s general elections hotly anticipated, the one issue that has grabbed Malaysians’ attention is the siege in Sabah. It has also been the main point of conversation and discussion amongst the Malaysian community in the UK, who have been following the news keenly via news reports and social media.

The siege began in mid-February, almost quietly, when some 200 Filipino Muslims arrived from Southern Philippines by boat to declare that Sabah belonged to their royal sultanate for more than two centuries, and that they wanted to reclaim it back. This group also insisted that that the Malaysian government has been paying rent to use the land, a claim that the Malaysian government has yet to address.

The siege started getting widespread attention when news agencies reported that a Malaysian policeman was killed by the insurgents, prompting Malaysians in the UK to express alarm that their government had not done something sooner to stop events escalating. One, who asked to remain anonymous, said, “If a security issue like this were to happen in Singapore, the Singapore government would have acted quickly to stop these rebels sooner. The Malaysian government’s lack of prompt action has allowed this siege to be unresolved for over a month. I think the Malaysian authorities were naive to think that persuasion alone would be enough to make these rebels return to the Philippines. And now the situation seems to be getting worse.”

The Malaysian government’s lack of prompt action has allowed this siege to be unresolved for over a month

Since then, Malaysian security forces have launched a large scale military action to attack the Filipino rebels. While Malaysia has refused to disclose the number of fatalities and casualties, it has been widely reported that 8 policemen, 2 soldiers and as many as 56 Filipino gunmen have died in the clash thus far. Malaysia’s Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, has also issued a hardline warning to the insurgents saying that his government will be prepared ‘to do everything to ensure the sovereignty of Sabah’. He has also ruled out further negotiation with the group and has called for the rebels to ‘lay down their arms unconditionally.’

This siege is reported to be the worst security issue that Malaysia has faced in recent times. The indecisiveness of the Malaysian government has led to concerns about how secure Malaysian sea border controls are, and how ready the Malaysian authorities are to tackle security breaches. Malaysian voters have taken to social media to ask how this Filipino Muslim group were able to bypass Malaysia’s naval monitoring and land in Sabah freely. Opposition parties are seeking to embarrass the government further by demanding answers on how long there has been unmonitored movement of people from Southern Philippines to Sabah.

Political observers in South East Asia are also closely watching the impact of this siege on the relationship between Malaysia and the Philippines.

Stemming from claims that authorities have deliberately turned a blind eye to Muslim immigration into the state for decades, Sabah’s large Christian population remains apprehensive. The ruling government has been accused of letting this happen for political reasons. One Christian blogger from Sabah told us, ‘We have been talking about the uncontrolled and unaccounted for influx of immigrants in Sabah for years but it has taken a siege like this to wake the rest of Malaysia up. It is ironic that Najib’s government is now talking about Sabah’s right to remain a sovereign state when for decades they have attempted to dilute the Christian population in the state to suit themselves.’

Political observers in South East Asia are also closely watching the impact of this siege on the relationship between Malaysia and the Philippines. The media in the Philippines has been reporting allegations of rape, abuse and unnecessary killings by the Malaysian authorities. Atty Harry Roque Jr, an activist lawyer from the Philippines, has warned Malaysia to ‘think twice before it proceeds to commit further criminal acts under international law’. Malaysia has denied these allegations. The Philippine government has sought to get assurance from the Malaysian authorities that the 800,000 Filipinos currently living and working in Sabah are protected. The Philippine media reports that hundreds of Filipinos have already fled Sabah although there are no official figures available from either country.

As we go to press, there is no end in sight for this conflict. With an election imminent in Malaysia, it remains to be seen how this will impact the already declining popularity of the current Prime Minister Najib Razak and his ruling party. If the government emerges from this conflict with a conclusive victory over the insurgents just before they call for the general elections, then this conflict may well turn out to be the catalyst they needed to rejuvenate their popularity amongst the Malaysian voters.

by Mani Pillai






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