Sabah’s cries in the Philippines

Closer to serenity than chaos — Puerto Galera, Mindoro, Philippines

Tucked away in the jungles of Mindoro, Philippines you’d think that I would have been too remote to be concerned with the chaotic conflagrations of the world. But this idyllic frame of nature at its richest ended up serving as a just reminder of how wild things have gotten in the country’s south, where the map seems to end at dissipating strings of islands.

Syria, Afghanistan and the occupation of Sabah by the Sultanate of Sulu were part of the bouncy proses the graced the lips of Jimmy Cliff at the Malasimbo Festival last weekend amidst the greenery of Mindoro. Beyond raggae-brand jivy calls for peace and free love, I knew he had a serious point.

Co-workers in Borneo now tell me that the incident that has already claimed the lives of 10 rebels from the southern Sulu archipelago of the Philippines — a group of about 180 that is holed up in a village in Sabah calling for rights to their ancestral homeland — and two members of Malaysia’s military has become permanently splashed across the front page of Malaysian newspapers.

The reaction of Malaysian government officials and business moguls taken by surprise over the rapid deterioration of the situation has turned comical, if not altogether outlandish. Prime Minster Najib Tun Razak so far has dealt with the clashes by taking to praying as if all other tools were already spent, while AirAsia CEO Tony Fernandes has chartered two of his iconic red airbuses to help ferry some purported 350 soldiers to the battleground. Taking even a step further, former Prime Minster Mahathir Mohamad has called for deadly force.

The south of the Philippines has long been a tinderbox of rebels aligning themselves with one claim or another. However, after the signing of the peace framework agreement between President Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the largest rebel group in the south, the bullets seemed to have stopped.

With a lasting peace eminent, this could have caused lesser factions to scramble for a last stand. “The dragon in his death throes is always dashing about,” a prominent Philippine government official recently told me.

Yet — though a landmark initiative — the peace agreement has yet to fully deal with the other destabilizing forces present in Mindanao, the country’s second largest island in the south. Here is an entry on investvine that I put up a week back detailing four of the five largest rebel groups:

The Sultan of Sulu’s support of some 180 of his followers staking ownership of Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah has placed Malaysian military on high alert, but the rebels from the Philippines’ southwestern province of Sulu are not the only destablilising force in the region.

Long discounted by the corridors of power in Manila and its citizenry, Mindanao was considered a sullied state that, until recent, had all the ingredients necessary to continue bubbling on as a cauldron of foreboding chaos.

While the landmark peace framework agreement signed between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in October 2012 has paved the way for higher hopes on the island, recently the recipient of $575 million in investment from Malaysia (of all sources), it did little to address the grievances of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Moro National Liberation Front and Abu Sayyaf.

Sultanate of Sulu 

His groggy face now splashed across international media, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the Sulu islands in Philippines’ south looks to have become tired of keeping still over his people’s ancestral claims over Sabah. Led by his younger brother, Agbinuddin Kiram, the 180-odd people traveling with him landed at Lahad Datu, on Borneo earlier in February, demanding that their gift from Brunei in 1678 be handed over. The land gifts given for the military assistance used in averting civil war in Brunei also included Palawan and the Spratly Islands, now hotly contested between China and several ASEAN nations.

The sultanate itself, founded in 1457 by a Johor-born Arab explorer, is no longer recognized as a state or autonomous entity, but belongs to the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, centered around the de facto capital of Jolo, source of much of the country’s separatist Islamist activity. While the Sultan has ensured investors and developers in Sabah that under his rule their investments will not become dispossessed, it is hard to imagine this wayward group of islanders gaining more than infamy in their case. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III no longer lives in the Sulu archipelago, and is purported to be residing Metro Manila with his wife.

Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)

Perhaps in years to come one of Benigno Aquino III’s greatest accomplishments for Mindanao will be the signing of the peace framework agreement in October 2012. The watershed act of diplomacy was shortly followed up by a personal visit from Aquino to meet MILF Chief Murad Ebrahim just outside the rebels’ stronghold, Sultan Kudarat, Mindanao – the first trip made by any contemporary president.

Though MILF’s stronghold is in Sultan Kudarat, critcally bordering South Cotabato province, home to one of the world’s largest gold/copper deposits, the rebel movement has formed active groups across the Sulu archipelago, Palawan, Basilan and other neighbouring islands. The MILF broke away from the Moro National Liberation Front in 1978, breaking out into sporadic conflict with each other and the central government over their own vision of an autonomous Bangsamoro region. As a splinter coalition, MILF was not formally established until 1984, afterwards drawing the support of former ruler to Libya, Muammar Gaddafi.

Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

The fractious relationship between the MILF and the MNLF were the center of an intervention by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in November 2012, the latter of which is formally recognised by the world’s second largest inter-governmental organization. Both the groups are the two largest rebel forces operating in Mindanao, yet since separation they have often been each other’s worst enemy.

Chairman Nur Misuari of the MNLF has critically thrown his support behind the Sultan of Sulu over their claims to Sabah. In predictable opposition – and most likely pressured to maintain a stance aligned with Aquino’s reconciliation ambitions – MILF doesn’t not agree with the Sultan’s actions, with MILF Vice Chairman Ghadzali Jaafar saying that they would prefer for the Sultanate to resolve their claim in a peaceful manner. The Philippine government has previously admitted to funding MILF’s attacks against MNLF.

Abu Sayyaf

When US soldiers say they are studying Tagalog, Abu Sayyaf is usually the reason why. In 2002, Abu Sayyaf was classified as a target of the US’s War on Terror under the Bush administration. The Islamist militant group is viewed as among the most intolerant of all rebel factions to other religions and is said to be affiliated with Al-Qaeda. Abu Sayyaf operates in the Sulu archipelago, including on Jolo, the main outpost of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Another splinter group of MNLF, Abu Sayyaf broke away in 1991. Abu Sayyaf has perpetrated some of the most notorious acts of violence in Mindanao, including the video recorded beheading of Philippine marines in 2011, and the abduction of Jordanian journalist Baker Abdulla Atyani, which the Philippine government has since asked MILF to help release. Abu Sayyaf released two Filipino cameramen working with Atyani in late February from their main compound in Sulu.

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