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Sabah has been driving us bananas. Fitting phrase since one theory on the origin of the name “Sabah” is due to the plentiful presence of “pisangsaba” in the area. “Pisang” means banana. “Saba” is a type of banana which we prefer to fry or boil, not eaten raw.
I often wondered why “bananas” is a term used to mean “crazy.” Did it start with the use of the term “banana republic?” Over a hundred years ago, the United States first got involved in the importation of bananas from South America. The banana became such a popular fruit in the American market that American businessmen got involved in local politics to ensure control over the production and importation of the fruit. They went bananas, controlling huge tracks of land for plantations in Costa Rica, Jamaica, Columbia, and other countries. To do this -- and to keep costs low -- American business had to ensure that leaders of the banana growing countries would be cooperative. How did businessmen do that? They funded grateful leaders -- most of them military -- who, when in power, followed the bidding of their patrons. Thus, the term “banana republic.”
With bananas a major export of Mindanao, was the Philippines ever thought of as a banana republic? Seems not, thank God. Although we could have been. In 1974, Pulitzer-prize winner Peter R. Kann wrote for the US Council of Foreign Relations: “The Philippines, despite its somewhat deserved reputation as a land of ‘goons, guns and gals,’ is not a banana republic in which pear-shaped colonels in sunglasses have taken turns toppling each other in petty coups d’ état. The Republic of the Philippines has no history of military rule, nor any tradition of political strongmen -- no Diems, Rhees or Sukarnos.” Kann later became editor and publisher of The Wall Street Journal Asia and publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
But I digress. To get back to the topic, the issue of our sovereign and proprietary claim over a large part of Sabah is driving folks bananas. Or perhaps it has receded from our radar screen, supplanted by other newsworthy matters.
A global crisis emanating from our region has seized the attention of the world: North Korea has threatened to launch an attack on South Korea. Our Department of Foreign Affairs has been in the news with statements on securing the safety of some 40,000 OFWs in South Korea.
In Malaysia, the parliament has been dissolved and elections will be held by the end of May. After over 50 days, the crisis in Lahad Datu is no longer front-page news in Malaysia, making way for the drama over the elections.
Here in the Philippines, personal dramas have been responsible for taking our attention off Lahad Datu. We have been engrossed by the telenovela-like custodial wrangling between Kris Aquino and James Yap over son Bimby, which took center stage a couple of weeks ago. We have been distracted by the drama of Heart Evangelista’s parents attacking Senator Chiz Escudero for meddling in family matters, among others. (I wonder if TV producers are now thinking of doing a reality show revolving around Heart’s family...) At any rate, Senator Chiz is still top 3 in the surveys.
However, the issue of Lahad Datu and Sabah has re-entered our consciousness with the first press conference held by the Transition Commission last Wednesday. As agreed on by the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro (FAB), the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao will be abolished and replaced by a new structure -- the Bangsamoro Political Entity. The 15-person Transition Commission is mandated to draft the Bangsamoro Basic Law establishing the foundation for the new political entity.
As I had expected, the Sabah issue was the topic of interest to media. The TransCom Chair, Mohagher Iqbal, diplomatically responded. Iqbal, MILF vice-chair and head of the MILF negotiating panel, said that the issue “is not part of talking points of [the] Bangsamoro basic law,” and “has never been part of the peace negotiations.”
GPH panel chair Miriam Ferrer-Coronel rightly reminded all “why we are all here in the first place: to find peace, to build peace, to put an end to violence in politics. And to make politics truly be of service to the just aspirations of the peoples in the Bangsamoro.” However, many have commented that Sabah is part of the aspirations of a large group of stakeholders.
Lawyer Johaira Wahab, former head of the government panel’s legal team, said the TransCom will not ignore realities but “will talk to the communities, those who will be affected by the law. The people in the island provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan will be included in those consultations and all of these issues will be considered there.” She was right in saying that the Commission members may have personal positions on the issue of Sabah but that it is beyond their group mandate as the TransCom to delve into the issue.
Unfortunately, the reporters were not satisfied by the answers.
To be fair, the TransCom can only work on their mandate -- which is to draft the basic law after the annexes of the FAB have been approved by government and the MILF. It is government and the MILF who must address the issue of Sabah, especially since the matter of the domain of the Bangsamoro should cover all the areas that belong to the Bangsamoro. The Sulu Sultanate has legal and historical claim over Sabah, a claim that former presidents Diosdado Macapagal and Ferdinand Marcos had pursued. This claim therefore has impact on the ancestral domain of the Bangsamoro.
TransCom Chair Iqbal stressed the need of the government and MILF panels to complete the remaining annexes on power sharing, normalization, and wealth sharing as these are “substantive issues.” Can we successfully move with the peace process by treating the claim of a major Bangsamoro stakeholder, the Tausugs of Sulu, as a non-issue? This is the problem when the facilitator of the peace process is not a neutral third party but is smack in the middle of a legal conflict over territory. Particularly since the territory is not just the source of bananas but, more importantly, rich in mineral resources.
Is it even possible to isolate the Sabah issue from the peace process, now that over a hundred have been killed or wounded in the Lahad Datu siege and thousands of Filipinos living in Lahad Datu have returned to the Philippines to escape the battles? Not to mention the human rights violations of Filipinos detained or arrested as the Malaysian security forces swept Lahad Datu in search of the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
My friend and colleague, Atty. Benny Bacani of the Institute for Autonomy and Governance, said it well: “It is understandable that the parties are zealously defending the talks... The PNoy peace train is on the run and no one will be allowed to derail it. Yet this peace train has vulnerabilities and these are exposed more by this unfortunate incident in Sabah.”
At this point, I can only wish the TransCom “more power!” and pray that the peace train will hurdle the obstacles in its way. The “daang matuwid” may be a straight path but there are boulders blocking the way.
Amina Rasul is the president of Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy. Surviel is her column in BusinessWorld. Follow her on Twitter @aminarasul.