Going bananas about Sabah
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Amid the coughs and colds caused by the sweltering heat, the residents of ARMM (and the country as a whole) are bothered by the on-going crises in Sabah. The heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu are dead set in asserting their claim to Sabah. However you look at it, there are legal documents that support the claim. But in a complicated modern world, so many factors intervene that prevents success. Malacanang is now the cynosure of all eyes in its response to this recent crisis. The president is perceived by many to be too “friendly” with Malaysia, and is unsupportive of the Sabah claim. One advantage of this is that it has diverted the attention of the country from the election campaign. Try testing your local candidates on their analysis of the Sabah situation to separate those who are gifted with discernment and those who have none at all.
However, the Sabah issue cannot be simply taken lightly because of the bloodshed that resulted in asserting the Sulu Sultan’s claim. There are now calls from several sectors (including the Catholic Hierarchy) to put a stop to the fighting between the two sides. The sultanate may only be asking for attention and sympathy to its claim, but the number of men who have died in the process shows that they have erred in their actions. Conflict can be settled through peaceful means. The use of force begets an opposing force – and in this case, the bringing in of guns to Sabah was countered with the use of military force by the Malaysians.
This close relationship between the island of Borneo and the Sulu Archipelago stems from history. Filipinos and Malaysians come from the same racial stock (Malays), and the dialects contain similar Bahasa terms. This was further strengthened during the 1970’s when those who joined the separatist movement look towards Sabah as their haven from pursuing military soldiers. Many of them opted to stay in the Sabah coastal towns like Lahad Datu, Semporna, and Sandakan. This is the so-called back door of the Philippines. Many workers of commercial and industrial establishments in this area are Filipinos. The movies you see on television there are Filipino movies. On the other hand, Malaysian radio stations are daily fare in the towns of Tawi-Tawi. Residents of Sibutu and Sitangkai even do their shopping in Sandakan which is nearer and more accessible compared to Zamboanga City.
It is therefore difficult to enforce border restrictions between Philippines and Sabah. One of the proposals in the proposed BIMP-EAGA is to issue trip pass to residents who cross the border, instead of requiring the possession of a passport. This was never realized, probably because of the large number of Filipinos who are using the back door in search of employment. Whenever an issue crops up that puts a dent on Malaysian-Philippines relations, the Malaysian government start deporting “halaws” from Sabah. This always causes panic among LGUs and government agencies in Southern Mindanao who are made responsible for their rehabilitation.
With such a situation, do you still wonder why President Aquino would opt to maintain the status quo (and take the diplomatic tract) rather than send Filipino soldiers to re-enforce the sultan of Sulu army in Sabah? Shouldn’t we try to improve our services first, before we claim another area to become part of our country? Is this the answer to poverty in this part of the Philippines? So many questions to be answered while Filipinos and Malaysians are dying in Sabah.
Eva Kimpo-Tan is the editor-in-chief of The Mindanao Cross, the oldest Catholic weekly in the southern Philippines.