Friday, March 15, 2013

Moros take the battle to Sabah. Having already lost their liberty, Sabah's Christians now face losing their peace.

By Elizabeth Kendal

Between 9th and 12th February 2013, as many as 235 ethnic Tausug from the Southern Philippines landed on the coast of eastern Sabah at Masjid Lama, near Lahad Datu, many armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers. Led by Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, the brother of the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, the militants claimed to be members of the Royal Sulu Army.

Initially the Malaysian government tread softly, asking the "intruders" to put down their arms and leave peacefully. The Tausug militants defiantly declined and a stand-off ensued. Eventually, after a fire-fight left at least six Malaysian policemen dead -- some reportedly beheaded -- Malaysia responded with force, deploying fighter jets in a full-blown air assault that killed at least 56 of the Filipino "terrorists".

Across the Moro-dominated southern Philippines, the Malaysian response has been branded an "atrocity". The fact that the Philippine's government has supported the Malaysian "atrocity" has further inflamed Moro hostility towards Manila.

Stratfor Global Intelligence (26 Feb) elaborates: "One of myriad ethnic groups spread across Southeast Asia, the Tausug are centered in Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago but stretch from Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo to Mindanao in the southern Philippines. The territory comprises what was once the Sultanate of Sulu, and the group has claimed it does not need to leave Malaysian territory because it is still part of the Sultanate.

"[The Tausugs] are traditionally maritime people who claim Islam came to the area by the 1300s and that the first Islamic sultanate of Sulu was established in the mid-1400s by a member of the Hashemite family and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. In the 1870s, the sultanate leased its territory in Sabah on Borneo to the British, and the British passed the territory on to Malaya. Malaysia still pays a nominal 'rent' to the Sulu Sultanate -- currently less than $2,000 per year -- and this is being shown as proof by the current Sulu Sultan that even Malaysia recognized Sulu sovereignty over Sabah."

Whether Malaysia's annual payment to the Sultan is for rental or purchase of Sabah remains a hotly contested issue.  Consequently, impoverished and marginalised oil-rich Sabah is contested territory!


In 1967, plotters within the Philippine military associated with President Ferdinand Marcos conspired to establish a force of commandos that would invade and destabilise Sabah giving the Philippine government grounds to intervene in Sabah on the pretext of protecting Filipinos living there. To this end some 200 Tausug and Sama Filipino Muslims from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi were recruited, armed and trained -- wooed with promises of an allowance and eventual accession into the Philippine Armed Forces. The commando unit was named Jabidah. Initial training was conducted in the island-town of Simunul in Tawi-Tawi. Then, on 30 Dec 1967, the recruits were sent to the island of Corregidor in Luzon for "specialised training."

A few months later everything unravelled when the Tausug and Sama Muslims learned they would have to fight and kill fellow Muslims in Sabah, possibly even their own Tausug and Sama relatives.  When the Muslims mutinied, the Philippine soldiers decided to eliminate them. The exact number of how many Muslim recruits were executed in Corregidor is unknown. The Moro struggle was born!
By Paul F. Whitman

Founded by Nur Misuari in 1969, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) waged jihad against the Philippine government for independence of the Bangsamoro people in Southern Philippines. Headquartered in Sabah through the 1970s, the MNLF received backing from Malaysia.

In 1976 the MNLF and Manila agreed to a provisional peace accord -- the sides have been negotiating ever since.

Included in those negotiations has been the Philippine claim over Sabah. While Manila seems keen to drop the issue the MNLF is not. The Moros (Filipino Muslims) have strong ethnic ties to Sabah. And as part of the historic Sultanate of Sulu, Sabah has always been included in MNLF's territorial demands.

Manila has never renounced its claim to Sabah but has used the claim as leverage to win Malaysian support in brokering peace with the more hardline Islamist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which split from the MNLF in 1978 to continue the jihad. Meanwhile Malaysia has used role as mediator in the MILF conflict for domestic political gain, promoting itself as the defender of the rights of Philippine Muslims.

Every Philippine government wants to go down in history as the government that brokered peace in the south. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's hasty 2008 deal collapsed under the weight of its own flaws and President Benigno S. Aquino III's hasty and flawed Oct 2012 Framework Agreement was always going to lead to conflict. For by brokering an agreement with the MILF that totally undermined the agreement already held with the MNLF the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) made conflict inevitable.

Indeed, the crisis in Sabah has its roots in the ill-fated "Framework Agreement" struck last October between the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).


Noel Tarrazona reports for Asia Times on line of a "Quiet quid pro quo".

"In an apparent non-disclosed component of the MILF peace deal, Manila agreed to drop its historical claim to territories in Sabah in exchange for the establishment of a Philippine consulate in Sabah, according to a source familiar with the provision. Revelations of the concession to Malaysia reportedly infuriated Kiram [the sultan] and the MNLF leadership, according to the same source. Manila has cooperated with Kuala Lumpur throughout the crisis and pressured Kiram to recall his followers.

"Kiram, who resides in Manila and reportedly suffers from diabetes, has so far defied those official demands while his family members have issued new threats. After Malaysia's assault on his rag tag royal militia, Princess Celia Fatima Kiram warned of a 'long civil war' in Sabah. Kiram's apparent strong links to the MNLF, once the country's largest rebel group with 15,000 under arms and increasingly disenchanted with Manila, give weight to that threat.

"MNLF leaders have spoken out forcefully in the wake of the assaults. MNLF Islamic Council Committee Chairman Habib Hashim Mudjahab said on Tuesday [5 March] that he could no longer hold back his people from traveling to Sabah to defend their ethnic brethren from Malaysian forces. 'We are hurt and many of our people, even non-combatants are going to Sabah to sympathize with the Sultanate,' Mudjahab said.

"MNLF political chief officer Gapul Hajirul warned that the signs of a civil war are already apparent in Sabah, referring apparently to the militant ambush on police forces in Semporna. The attack indicated to some observers that an underground Tausug movement is already organized and undertaking insurgent operations in Sabah. 'I am afraid there will be civil war in Sabah because thousands of Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslims) are residing in Sabah,' Hajirul said without elaborating.

"MNLF leader Nur Misuari told reporters on Tuesday that if Malaysia targets Filipinos based in Sabah his group would consider it 'tantamount to a declaration of war.' He also warned Philippine President Benigno Aquino that any attempt to arrest Kiram would plunge the country into chaos. . ."

SEE: Threats of a wider war in Sabah
By Noel Tarrazona, Asia Times on line, 7 March 2013

Ida Lim (The Malaysian Insider, 2 March 2013) similarly warns of the danger of escalation.

"The Lahad Datu standoff could widen into a civil war engulfing Sabah, a Philippine separatist leader has warned as a Muslim rebel army moved to entrench itself in the Borneo state. . ."

She too quoted Hajirul: "I am afraid there will be a civil war in Sabah because thousands of Bangsamoro are residing in Sabah. It's only MNLF chairman Nur (Misuari) who could decide on the matter. Whatever his decision, we will follow. Our Tausug brothers and sisters of Sulu and the Samals in Tawi-Tawi were saddened and are hurting by the turn of the events."

Lim notes that the news portal the Philippine Star estimates that more than 8,500 Filipinos, mostly Tausugs or Suluk tribesmen, are residing in Sabah and are potential supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Observers largely agree that the ultimate purpose of the invasion of "a few boatloads of bandits, cannot conceivably be to claim Sabah by force". On the contrary, it is widely believed that the Sultan and MNFL have merely manufactured a crisis at a strategic moment -- virtually on the eve on Malaysia's federal elections (due by June) -- so as to leverage themselves into the on-going GRP - MILF negotiations. 

Malaysian commentators have lambasted the Malaysian government: "This Umno-led effort [mediating peace between the GRP and MILF] is clearly making a grand show of Muslim solidarity, in a desperate attempt to secure Malay-Muslim votes in the peninsula, as well as Muslim Filipino and Indonesian migrants' votes in Sabah.

"Umno's botched attempt at brokering a peace deal in the southern Philippines has cost us heavily: hundreds of Sabahan villagers along the east coast have been made refugees, eight (or more) policemen have lost their lives, and Sabah has been drawn ever deeper into the conflict in the southern Philippines. . . "

Meanwhile, Philippine president Benigno Aquino III is also paying a heavy price in Philippine media for appearing to sanction the foreign use of deadly force against Philippine rebels seen to be making a legitimate claim to what they regard as their historic homeland.


When Sabah joined Sarawak, Malaya and Singapore to form independent Malaysia in 1963, it was on the conditions of a 20-point agreement that included the following: There should be no state religion and the provisions relating to Islam in Federal Constitution should not apply; and, English should be the official language for all purposes without limitation of time.

Donald Stephens, a Kadazan-Dusun Christian who played an important role in bringing Sabah into Malaysia, became the first Chief Minister.

According to the National Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) Malaysia, "before 1963, Sabah and Sarawak were guided by their native customs and by British laws. The influence of Islam was marginal."

At that time Sabah was a multi-ethnic, plural state, with the predominantly Christian Kadazan-Dusun being the largest ethnic group, comprising around 32 percent. (Today they comprise about 17.8 percent.)

However, from 1967, under the chief ministership of Mustapha Datu Harun, policies were enacted  to unify the peoples of Sabah through the imposition of one language, Bahasa Malaysia, and one religion, Islam. The United Sabah Islamic Association, funded by the government, was established with the specific task of conversion. Mass conversion particularly in the rural areas became the norm. Rumours had it that the government applied pressure and resorted to bribery to obtain converts to Islam. Mustapha used his emergency powers to expel all expatriate Christian missionaries on the grounds that they perpetuated an imperialist mentality.

By 1973, Islam had been made the official religion of the state and Bahasa Malaysia had been adopted as the state's sole official language.

When UMNO entered state politics in Sabah in the1990s, it opened the floodgates for mass immigration and naturalisation of Muslims from Indonesia and Southern Philippines, essentially "to weaken the indigenous Kadazan-Dusun Christians and to enhance UMNO powerbase" (NECF). This systematic granting of citizenship to immigrants was known as Project IC (for Identity Card) or Project M (for Mahathir Mohamad). (See: Project IC's Chickens coming home to roost, Malaysiakini, 3 March.)

Today local Sabahans are a minority in Sabah. Asrul Hadi Abdullah Sani wrote of this July 2010, quoting MP Lim Kit Siang: "After 47 years, Sabahans are now concerned that they have become the minority and strangers in their own land. How can Sabah's population of 400,000 during the formation of Malaysia in 1963 be now multiplied to over three million today?" [That figure includes up to 1.7 million migrants (Nov 2007): NECF.]

Furthermore, religious liberty is now illusory. David Fung writes: "In Sabah, since 1978 it has been an offence for anyone to propagate any religious doctrine or belief without the permission of the Sabah Majlis Ugama Islam among Muslims, and the offence shall be tried before the magistrate's court and punishable with imprisonment of up to one year or a fine up to RM3,000 or both.

"Attempted apostasy out of the religion of Islam is apparently also an offence for the Muslim who has shown by word or conduct that he or she intentionally claims to cease to profess Islam or declares himself or herself to be a non-Muslim.

"The syariah court has the power to order that the apostate (murtad) be detained in the Islamic Rehabilitation Centre for a maximum period of 36 months on the pretext of rehabilitating the person so that the person could repent of the attempted apostasy."

For more on the Islamisation of Sabah, see:

The broken oath and Sabah’s ‘curse’
In Sabah pressure to convert to Islam 'was particularly great on those in politics'.
By David Fung (a Sabah based advocate and solicitor), 3 January 2012.

Sabah: A report by the national Evangelical Christian Fellowship (NECF) Malaysia.


Over the decades the Malaysian government has been so focused on winning Muslim votes and importing Muslim vote-cattle that they failed to consider the long-term consequences.

Rowan Callick, Asia-Pacific Editor for The Australian (9 March), describes the Sabah conflict the latest battleground of "blowback" - "where people who are trained for covert action return to bite the hand of the people who have fed and armed them."

Ramon Tulfo, Philippine Daily Inquirer (20 Feb), describes "the whole saga [as] a case of 'karma' on Malaysia".

Tolfu writes: "Malaysia is in a no-win situation as a result of the standoff in Sabah.

"If it uses deadly force on a small group of armed Filipino Muslims now holed up in the village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah, members of the fiercest of Philippine Moro tribe, the Tausogs of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, will retaliate.  . . .

"There is no record of the number of Filipinos, mostly Tausogs, in Sabah. But a friend of mine who used to be in the Philippine military intelligence estimates that one-third of the population in the Malaysian state is Tausog.

"Many of the people in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi have relatives in Sabah, which is just one hour by speedboat from Simunul in Tawi-Tawi.

"If the Tausogs in Sabah rise up in revolt against the Malaysian government, their relatives in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi will go to Sabah and fight with them.

"To the Tausogs, the claim of the group purporting to represent the Sultanate of Sulu that Sabah belongs to the sultanate is legitimate."

Doubtless presenting a Western perception, The Economist (23 Feb), reports: "The sultan, Jamalul Kiram III . . . is now a merely symbolic figure. His claim to Sabah is a romantic fantasy, yet one that grips the imagination of those hoping for another golden [Islamic] era."

In contrast, Tulfo (a Filipino journalist) maintains: "The Sulu Sultanate, long dormant and somewhat forgotten because of the war waged by the Tausog-led MNLF against the government, is still revered by Moros in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

"Tausogs respect the Sultan of Sulu in much the same way Malaysians pay homage to their royal family.

"If harm is done to Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram, who ordered the Mudah Agbimuddin to enter Sabah, his fellow Tausogs in Sabah and in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi will take up arms against the Malaysian government. . .

"My source in Sulu said that even before the landing of 200 men in Lahad Datu last week [early-mid Feb], the Sultanate had already sent armed men in small groups to Sabah to escape notice from authorities. The armed groups are being coddled by Tausogs in the Malaysian state. . ."

Tulfo concludes: "When the (Philippines) government was fighting the MNLF (Moro National Liberation Front) in the 1970s through the 1980s, Malaysia was secretly supporting the rebellion in the South.

"Weapons coming from Libya and other Middle East countries passed through Malaysia on their way to the MNLF.

"Now, it seems the shoe is on the other foot.

"The law of karma is being played out."

Kuala Lumpur-based political analyst Nile Bowie writes for Asia Times on line (12 March): "The Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino has sided with Malaysia and reiterated its call to Kiram's followers to surrender to prevent further bloodshed. Aquino has spoken of punishing the sultan and his men for masterminding the armed rebellion in Sabah, prompting a domestic backlash that threatens fragile peace deals with separatist militant groups sympathetic to Kiram's cause. . .

"Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), warned the Aquino government of chaos if Kiram is arrested or his men apprehended. . .

"At a recent press conference, Misuari stated, '. . . [If] there is an attempt even to arrest the sultan, I understand. Let them do that. The country will be in total chaos if they do, I promise you'."

Bowie concludes: "As many Filipinos categorize the actions taken by Malaysia as 'atrocities', a credible threat exists in the prospect of a wider war if MNLF soldiers establish a foothold in Sabah. While [Malaysian Prime Minister] Najib's position will likely remain firm, the risks are rising of a wider crisis as security forces engage militants and reports from the front stir nationalistic passions."

Underneath all this is Sabah's longsuffering Christian community. Having already lost their liberty, Sabah's Christians must be wondering if they are about to lose their peace. 


Elizabeth Kendal is the author of
Turn Back the Battle: Isaiah SPeaks to Christians Today
(Deror Books, Dec 2012)