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A Sultan and his strategy

As I write this, sitting in my Malate hotel, highly excitable Filipinos are scurrying about on the streets below talking about an invasion of their Malaysian neighbours.

No, I have not been reading George Orwell in Manila, or even Lolita in Teheran, but I am reading Mohammed Hanif’s satirical novel about the death of Pakistan’s military dictator Zia ul Haq in 1988.

Hanif’s A Case of Exploding Mangoes presents a crazily funny, yet weirdly plausible, take on Zia’s demise; but its lunacy cannot match last month’s events in the East
Malaysian state of Sabah.

When reports first came in about an invasion by more than 200 supporters of an ancient sultanate in the southern Philippines, they rated barely a footnote on the inside pages.

After all, surely they were just a few nutters, who had paddled over from the Sulu Islands, landed at the isolated village of Lahad Datu, and claimed the whole of Sabah for themselves.

It was like Monty Python invades Rodonia, for the place is just as obscure and many people would be hard pressed to finger Sabah on a map, let alone Lahad Datu or the Sulus.

Initially, Kuala Lumpur and Manila also deemed it so silly as to be beneath their dignity to respond in any meaningful way.

Even when it became clear the Sultan’s men were deadly serious, all that Philippine President Benigno Aquino did was to ask them to surrender and return home before anyone got hurt.

It was too little, too late. The insurgent band were heavily armed and highly motivated, battle-hardened veterans of Muslim insurgencies on Mindanao. And they had an arguable case, because North Borneo, now Sabah, was – and still is – leased by Malaysia from the Sultan of Sulu, and the men said they were simply going home to reclaim it.

So they were never going to listen to platitudes from Aquino, or threats from Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Finally, wanting to appear strong as an election looms, Najib sent in the big guns, including F-18 fighter jets; but most of the canny invaders melted away into the dense jungle.

Still, plenty of bloodshed ensued on both sides and it became less Monty Python and more like a cross between Jonestown and Sharpeville.

And while it has soured ties between   the  two  countries, what is most intriguing is the real motive behind the tragedy.

It is not the fantastical quest to reclaim Sabah for the Philippines – that is never going to happen and the Sultan and his followers know it.

But they also know there is tremendous sympathy for them at home and among the 800,000 ethnic Filipino Muslims residing in Sabah.

So they knew the odds were good that they could achieve their real objective, which is to kill the framework peace agreement Aquino signed with their rivals, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, last October.

That agreement, ironically brokered by Malaysia, could be Aquino’s major legacy – if it is approved by Congress and enacted by 2016.

However, when Manila negotiated that deal with the MILF, it excluded other Muslim groups, including the Sultan’s people and key forces aligned with them.

That was bad enough, but these groups were further riled by the way the agreement covers both the MILF’s territorial base on Mindanao, and also the Sultan’s own heartland of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.

They now fear that if the agreement goes into force, the MILF, which has little presence in the Sulus, will abandon the Sabah claim.

That is why the Sultan’s men want to kill the agreement and why they launched their quixotic invasion which led to the deaths of many of their own men – and of other Filipinos by the Malaysian military.

That in turn has fuelled such anger that legislators in Manila may now vote down the agreement and thus hand a technical victory to the invaders.

And now for something completely different.

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