The root of the problem on the Sabah issue is the lack of political will in high places, the lack of courage to pursue, the fear of making a mistake which helped make more and bigger mistakes. Noynoy has been using a type of diplomacy which is not working – authoritarian yet fearful and panicky, covert rather than overt using secret couriers, exuding a peace stance which would ironically bring war. Right now, Noynoy is getting an avalanche of flak worldwide.
Noynoy also displays a lack of in-depth knowledge, hinting that he needs historians and anthropologists over and above his political appointees in the Cabinet who sway him so easily into new blunders. As one columnist puts it, it is ignorance and arrogance all at once. But all is not hopeless. Noynoy can change things if he wants to, if he goes beyond his Cabinet, if decides to be fearless and wise all at once, if he adopts some aggressiveness, if he begins to get an in-depth insight into this huge complex geopolitical issue.
A Bit of History
Here are some basics on Sabah history to begin with. A Bornean Sultan was at war with a neighboring sultanate. At that time, there were many rival Muslim principalities from Sulu to Borneo to Melanesia. The rivalry revolved around economics, that is, trade and territory. When he was about to lose that war, the Bornean Sultan sent an urgent message for help to the Tausug Sultan of Jolo. In the ensuing rescue, the Bornean Sultan prevailed, and rewarded the Tausug Sultanate with territory, namely, Sabah.
When the British gave independence to Malaysia, it ceded Sabah, which it did not own or colonize, to the Malaysians. To settle matters and avoid conflict, Malaysia offered to rent Sabah for a song. The Tausug Sultanate agreed. The contract exists today. Malaysia has been paying the inheritors of the Tausug Sultanate. This is prima facie evidence that Malaysia in fact DOES NOT OWN Sabah, and is a tenant to the landlord Tausug Sultan.
The Tausug royalty requested President Diosdado Macapagal to help retrieve Sabah from the Malaysians. Like Noynoy, Macapagal had no political will. He was not strong, aggressive, or creative enough to deduce a strategy. The implication of the Tausug request is that Sabah was now elevated from a concern of a Sultanate to that of the Philippine government, of which the Tausugs were a part.
Marcos had the political will, one of the few Presidents we had balls, but his plan was not brainy enough. He organized a secret army of Tausug warriors to invade Sabah, which ended up as the infamous Jabidah massacre. All was lost for now on the effort to retrieve Sabah. Marcos was a lawyer and knew from evidence the case of Sabah would win in the international courts. But he had an insight into geopolitics and world history. He knew the Malaysian will not go to court or to the bargaining table. Like the Japanese and Germans in World War II, he knew war was the only option. He was right because Sabah is rich in oil and gas, and the tenant will not just give it up in a lousy court case. We are back to the trade and territory issue of the Muslim principalities of old. Malaysia in truth is asking to be invaded.
When Noynoy failed to support the side of Kiram and the Tausugs, he virtually degraded the concern of Sabah as a government matter achieved by Macapagal back to the concern of the Tausugs. He also showed his tail behind his legs to the Malaysians, who were emboldened to employ overkill. He not only incurred the ire of the entire Bangsa Moro for abandoning the Muslim Filipinos, he showed his weakness to the Malaysians, who took the initiative. That is one big geopolitical blunder which the entire world is watching right now.
Towards a Geopolitical Strategy
The international community plays a crucial role in solving the Sabah impasse, even if we forget the courts, to which Malaysia (and China in the Spratleys) will never take as an option. Diplomatic pressure is the key. For example, can we possibly ask the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) to intervene? It is a conflict of Muslims versus Muslims. Can we (or not so much we but the Tausugs) not get the sympathy of specific Muslim countries? After all, we are the underdog. We are the one’s being bullied, a small band of Tausugs facing tanks and jets.
Can we not strike a deal with an oil Islamic country or even the big Western powers (this is dangerous, but we are desperate) to help us retrieve Sabah in return for an exclusive partnership to the oil and gas?
There are many other geopolitical possibilities. It is just that Noynoy and all the President’s men are not thinking enough. Their diplomacy is panicky, knee-jerk, clandestine, and based on lack of information on Sabah and insight into the essence of aggressive diplomacy.
Even China may start to soften up in the Spratleys if they know they have a window on the rich Sabah oil and gas, which is easier and quicker to extract at this point. We may even hit two birds with one stone with China. The energy crisis is actually our ally, a geopolitical tool that will bring bounty. There are many more options we can brainstorm on.
But when I say ‘our’, I mean in behalf of the Tausugs, the real and essential owners based on history. They must have a major role in 1) any new autonomous local government in Sabah, 2) a major share in the oil and gas bounty. If we set the Tausugs to the side and they see Sabah progress rapidly without them, there will be a new war of Christians and Muslims never before seen, where they will try to separate into an independent state. That war may polarize and escalate to include other regional powers.
Right now, the Tausugs have the advantage of 1) sympathy from other Muslim nations for being bullied by a tenant, 2) being in a position to launch a protracted guerrilla war in the remote rainforests of Sabah that can last for decades. Having an anthropological and historical knowledge of the Tausug as warrior (this is not romanticizing), this is very possible. The poverty of Muslims in Mindanao will strengthen that guerrilla war. Then, all they need would be more arms from outside supporters. We can nip that protracted war in the bud if we just somehow make our next chess move brilliant.