by Bernie Lopez
advance copy – Opinyon Magazine, March 18, 2012
Noynoy’s big geopolitical blunders are starting to emerge – first, Spratleys, now, Sabah. As in the Spratleys, the thing that makes the issue a dilemma is OIL, which the Malaysians will not easily give up. For them, like the Chinese, oil is non-negotiable. But so is territorial ownership for the Tausugs, so it seems. In oil lies the impasse.
What exactly did our dear President Aquino do? He ordered Datu Kiram to back down and come home in the name of peace. He in fact gave two messages – one, the Philippine government will not back up the Tausug sultanate and its people in their bid to claim what is rightfully theirs; and two, instead of giving hope to the Tausugs, he gave despair and alienation. The end result is – first, a profound effect on the election campaign of administration senators, who may lose millions of Muslim votes; second, ironically, Noynoy’s move to achieve peace may bring war. He virtually ‘severed’ Bangsa Moro instantly from the rest of the country. Noynoy in effect was saying with authoritarian impunity, “Nag-iisa kayo”. (You are alone.), when he could have said, “Ayusin natin ito. (Let’s fix this.) We are in this together. We support your cause, but let’s do this properly. Let us sit down and find a solution together”.
We perhaps cannot blame Noynoy. He and his political advisers know no better. The only thing in their mind is we are not in a position to go to war. But there is a middle road they did not consider in their ‘panic diplomacy’. If Noynoy told the Tausugs that the Philippine government will revive the case of Sabah in the United Nations, he would have given hope and not alienation. He would have gone closer to the peace he wanted by cooling heads.
The issue can perhaps be handled this way. Talk to Kiram. Listen to him. Assure him the government is behind them, but not this way. Let’s go to the UN. Give him hope. Give him options. Do not put him in a corner. Noynoy did not even give Kiram an audience, exacerbating the problem. Listening to Kiram is critical in forming a diplomatic solution. Kiram is known to be loyal to him, attending many events where he was invited. The hope Noynoy could have given would perhaps calmed down Bangsa Suluk (the Tausug nations) into considering viable options instead of going into a defensive war. Then the next step is to talk to Malaysia with Kiram behind you, not against you.
Interviewed by talk-show-anchor-wanna-be Boy Abunda at ABS-CBN, Kiram’s daughter Princess Jacel exhibited her true royal blood. Abunda, trying to be a neutral third party, was in fact cornering her with a barrage of questions representing the Christian perspective. But he failed miserably at every turn. The Princess, who is extremely articulate in English and Pilipino, would not be cornered. Asked if she would sacrifice the common good of the entire nation going to war, she simply said the government seems to be on the side of Malaysia. This subservience is a sign of weakness that the Malaysians can exploit. Right now the Malaysians have the initiative and we have our tail in between our legs. True to her royal blood, the Princess answered barbed questions calmly and surely.
The Tausugs are a warrior class that can match the resilience of the Japanese kamikaze or the Vietcong. They will not easily back down. They have a sense of pride and dignity in the face of overwhelming odds. During the Philippine American War, the Americans invented the 45 calibre because the 38 calibre, a standard cavalry issue, failed to stop the oncoming Tausug warriors. They would wrap themselves tightly with cloth to prevent massive hemorrhage, and like the kamikaze, they have a sacred prayer ritual before going to battle.
The recent Tausug ‘invasion’ of Sabah involved no arms and was a peaceful move to establish physical presence, a non-violent ‘occupy Sabah’ akin to ‘occupy Wall Street’, which was their right as the landlord. Kiram’s group will not attack. They will simply defend themselves and not back down. They will not be exiled from their own land. The Malaysian media succeeded in poisoning the minds of the public and induced adrenaline to opt for overkill with tanks and helicopters on the wrong premise – a Tausug invasion.
Legally, we have a tight case. The rent the Malaysians pay is clear evidence the place is not theirs. The UN option is good, but we have to go beyond the legal option. As in the Spratleys, in the end, when the chips are down, the issue is no longer legal. It can easily escalate to the level of war. We Filipinos, who are fond of court cases and rebuttals, should start to realize that the issue is evolving beyond the verbal and legal.
But even before that, there are still many options. We have to stand up to our rights, or the rights of our fellow Filipinos, the Tausugs. We cannot abandon them. What are some options beyond a UN court case? Could we perhaps involve our former colonizers, the British for the Malaysians and the Americans for the Filipinos? Can a neutral Islamic third party intervene? The international community can be an ally for the underdog. Can we get Sabah back without further bloodshed? That is a tall order because oil is the geopolitical thorn. But it is about time we face the issue squarely and think of new bold options, not cower down.
Right now, dozens of international civic groups are appealing for an immediate ‘humanitarian ceasefire’. They are of course pointing a finger at Malaysia which took the military initiative. The Filipinos in Malaysia are on the defensive. They do not want to fight, especially such a bigger foe. But if they are forced to, based on history, the Tausug warrior may just rise to the occasion, heaven forbid. The purpose of Malaysia is obvious – cleanse Sabah of the ‘troublesome’ Filipinos. They want to oust their landlords.