The Sulu Sultanate Quarrel and Wider Implications

If it weren't for many so unnecessary deaths - and the apparent Malaysian need to act tough in advance of its pending national election - the confrontation in Sabah between Malaysian authorities and supporters of the pretender to the Sultanate of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, might have seemed comic.

It was hardly comic this morning when Malaysia fighter jets and ground forces including seven army battalions responded with overwhelming force against the 200-odd men of the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, routing them from a kampung on the eastern Sabah shore at Lahad Datu.

It is questionable whether the force unleashed by the Royal Malaysian Army was necessary, or whether it was more a message to the Barisan Nasional's voting public of government decisiveness and military prowess. So far, President Benigno S. Aquino in Manila has been quiescent about the Sulu sultan's claims. But the sight of warplanes bombing a ragtag bunch of their countrymen is not going to sit well with the Filipino public.

Beyond that, the situation is very much a reminder that what were thought permanent national boundaries established at the end of World War II and the 20 years of decolonization which followed may not be so, and that there remains the risk of a wider confrontation that has troublesome potential for the region.

For instance the tragic events at Lahad Datu coincide with two other issues involving Sabah and its immediate Borneo neighbors, Sarawak and independent Brunei. One is the Chinese claim to waters stretching almost to the northern coast of Borneo and thus to waters within the Exclusive Economic Zones of Malaysia and Brunei.

Malaysia has so far kept a low profile during the confrontations between China and Vietnam and the Philippines. But the Chinese claim to Malaysia-held islands and waters will not go away, however far Malaysia buries its head in the sand. Indeed, there are some in the East Malaysian states who feel that Kuala Lumpur's low profile on an issue so important to them reflects an attitude that the two states are only important so long as they provide resources and votes for the Barisan Nasional, or national ruling coalition led by the United Malays National Organization, the country's biggest ethnic political party.

That now brings the two states to the forefront of another issue: the upcoming federal election. Loss of support for the Barisan there could see it booted out of office for the first time since independence. That the Barisan has so long done well in the two states is more the result of their complex ethnic and religious configurations, plus the power of money, than any great love for UMNO.

The two states have both retained a higher degree of autonomy than those of the peninsula but have also seen their resources over-exploited by the alliance between local and peninsular elites to extract wealth for themselves, often to the great disadvantage of the indigenous people who are classed as bumiputeras, or natives, but, especially they are not also Muslims and do not in practice enjoy the same privileges as Malays.

While no one is expecting the Malaysian federation assembled by the departing British in 1963 to fall apart in the foreseeable future, suddenly the region is looking a little less stable, and cracks covered up by regional cooperation within ASEAN and bilaterally since the end of Indonesian konfrontasi with Malaysia in 1966 and the Philippines de facto decision after 1968 not to pursue its Sabah claim, still exist.

The Kiram move has also resurrected in some minds the broader Philippine claim to Sabah. Idiocy in Manila often seems to know no bounds. Independent observers would have thought that the nation had a poor-enough record in governing Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago than to sustain, at least on paper, a claim which has no justification in historical terms of being the successor of Spanish and US imperialism.

The US never accepted the Sultan's claims in the Philippines let alone to the Borneo territory then under British control. The Philippine claim can only be pursued through a Sultan who could then also claim most of Mindanao as his own as an independent state. At a time when the Philippines should be strengthening ties with Malaysia and making common cause to defend their seas from Chinese expansionism, morons in Manila seem set on keeping the claim alive, damaging relations with Malaysia, undermining its position on the South China Sea, and making less likely peace for Mindanao and Sulu.

The timing of the Kiram incursion suggests it may have been intended to create a diversion which would torpedo the still tentative peace deal between Manila and the MILF which Malaysia helped to broker. That remains to be seen but if the Philippines is not careful Malaysia could go back to an earlier de facto posture of allowing Muslim rebels in Sulu and Mindanao sanctuary and covert support.

Take old Sultanate claims one step further and Brunei will start to claim all of east Malaysia, taken from it partly by the British, the Sulu archipelago and part of Mindanao lost by rebellion by the ancestors of the current Sultan (assuming he is the rightful heir).

Events at this end of Malaysia could also have reverberations at the other end, where the Malaysian federation meets the rump of a once larger Thai kingdom to which the sultans of Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Perlis once gave fealty. The Thais only conceded this in a 1909 treaty with the British, who accepted Thai sovereignty over Pattani, the ancient sultanate comprising the troubled southern provinces of Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat, taken under direct Thai rule in 1902.

Its Sultan had sought British help in fending off Thai demands but the British did not want to press the Thais too hard so it stayed part of Thailand. The British changed their minds after 1945 with a plan, backed by Pattani leaders feeling oppressed by Bangkok, to join to Malaya partly as punishment for Thai cooperation with Japan. But the US opposed it and the idea was dropped.

But in the minds of many of the provinces' inhabitants it will not go away, at least until the Malays get the degree of autonomy they demand and which a centralized Thai state is unwilling to concede. Leaders of both countries have been making an effort to address the issue with Malaysia enabling talks with one of the many separatist groups to end the rising level of violence. However, there remains a huge problem reconciling Bangkok's view of the Thai state with a Malay population enjoying the sympathy, and more, of Malays across the border who may not always listen to leaders in Kuala Lumpur more interested in regional cooperation than ethnic solidarity.