That force has a mass base. It’s not a big one but it’s there and you can’t get rid of it except through ethnic cleansing. The spokesperson of the Sulu Sultanate has been implying that’s exactly what Malaysian authorities are doing these days
On the other hand, by sending that force to Sabah, what has Sultan Jamalul accomplished? He has attracted some attention for the sultanate’s claim to sovereignty and proprietary rights to Sabah. But at what cost? Dozens of his followers have been killed in the wilderness. And that may precisely be the point: the need for such attention was so desperate that he was willing to secure it at exorbitant cost.
He got some attention, all right. The wrong kind. Instead of getting the support of Philippine President Benigno Aquino he endured a dose of cavalier treatment. The sultan was threatened with legal action. His leadership was questioned. Even if he wanted to recall his followers, after that treatment, his sense of honor — martabat — would make that unthinkable.
On this stalemate, former President Fidel V. Ramos has offered sensible advice to President Aquino: meet the sultan face-to-face and persuade him to recall his followers from Sabah by promising that he, the president, would do a good job of representing the sultanate on its Sabah claims. That’s basically what the sultan wants: attention to his Sabah claims, and respect — if not for himself as a revered traditional leader — then for the sultanate.
After that, Ramos says, President Aquino should meet with the leader of Malaysia to present a Philippine position reached with the agreement of the sultan. I add: one of the first things they should talk about is how to effect a peaceful and orderly repatriation of the sultan’s followers holed up in Sabah.
Ramos also suggests that the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area then be revived and transformed into a “free trade zone that is virtually borderless — within the larger framework of the Asean Free Trade Area.” He also proposes, once again, the setting up of a public-private corporation that will develop BIMP-EAGA under the management of Malaysia, the heirs of the sultanate and private investors.
He doesn’t say it now but he said it before — that when these measures are carried out, they should open the way for the dropping of the sultanate’s sovereignty and proprietary claims to Sabah.
Responding to these suggestions, President Aquino says Ramos should write him a memo and he will consider it. In other words, shut up.
Observers have compared Aquino’s arrogance to that of the overconfident but inexperienced American President John F. Kennedy, who once refused to consult his predecessor, the much more experienced and worldly-wise Dwight D. Eisenhower. But after the Bay of Pigs debacle, Kennedy learned from his mistake and began to consult Eisenhower extensively. During the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962 Eisenhower’s advice proved crucial.
Like Eisenhower, Ramos knows first-hand what armed conflict is. He knows regional politics like he knows his own backyard. He knows Filipino ethnic groups more than Aquino will ever learn. And his robust friendship with former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir must count for something. One should listen to his two-cents’ worth. And forgive Ramos for appropriating the Indonesian saying, “musyawarah untuk mufakat,” or deliberation to achieve consensus. When he invokes it in the context of the Sabah problem, it makes sense.
There may be better ideas than those of Ramos on how to unlace the Sabah knot. But these ideas will never surface until there’s earnest dialogue on the issue. A dialogue that involves various individuals and institutions in the two countries. But it should start between Aquino and the Sultan of Sulu.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer whose interests include literature, philosophy and foreign policy. He is an English language and writing consultant of the Indonesian government