POLITICAL POSTURING: Lahad Datu incursion is due to internal Philippine power play and Malaysia has been drawn into the mess

THE security operation dealing with the incursion into Sabah seems to have passed the mid-point stage, with mop-up operations under way.

Throughout the crisis, the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia have cooperated to bring about a solution to prevent it from escalating any further, and to prevent any spill-over effects that may lead to further instability.

It is hoped that after the issue subsides, Malaysia-Philippines relations will grow even stronger, and not weaker; and this would bode well for the future of Asean integration.

But one thing has become clear in the course of this crisis, and it is the fact that we need to understand and know our neighbours better.

As Asean enters its 46th year, all of us who reside in the Asean region need to know one another more, and to understand the complicated internal political dynamics of each other’s countries.

Malaysia, from its creation, has been the punching bag for some political actors and agents in our part of the world.

We remember that almost as soon as the idea of the Federation of Malaysia was raised, objections were made by some political parties and movements in Indonesia and the Philippines that were opposed to the Malaysian Federation project.

Indonesia’s Communist Party (PKI) went as far as denouncing Malaysia as a neo-colonial plot, alleging that all Malaysians were pawns in some neo-colonial game. Over the past five decades, Malaysia has been the convenient punching bag for a host of lobby groups, opposition movements and parties in Indonesia and the Philippines who chose to bash Malaysia whenever it suited them.

The latest salvo has come from the purported claimant to the throne of Sulu, who has used the Sabah issue as a means to gain leverage in the context of Philippine politics. But as analyst Joseph Franco has noted, Jamalul Kiram’s claim was “first couched in terms of a return to their ancestral homeland, then as a claim for the Filipino people”, then as a “private matter” between the sultanate and the Malaysian government.

Clearly some degree of political posturing has been done by Kiram and his followers, and to add fuel to the fire, there has also been the support of other Philippine politicians who have capitalised on the issue to further damage the reputation and image of Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

This is a fact that Malaysians need to bear in mind, again and again: that much of what has happened is the result of an internal Philippine contestation of power, and that Malaysia has sadly been drawn into the mess.

If Malaysia was located further away from the Philippines, we would have regarded this as a distant problem with no impact on us. Now that it has happened, Malaysians need to realise that we live in a complex region that has a common shared history, but is also divided along the borders defined by the modern nation-state.

In the long run, the Asean project will only really succeed if we manage to transcend the primordial demands of some groups like Kiram’s and develop a sense of a broader Asean identity and belonging.

In order to do this, we need to know our neighbours better. We also need to understand how our neighbours in the Philippines see their fellow citizens in the south of their country.

Franco has noted that the Sulu Zone is known to Manila policymakers as “the southern backdoor”, with its relative state of underdevelopment and limited governance.

Small arms proliferation is one manifestation of this prevailing condition. Guns provide the leverage for any organised group to exercise coercion, regardless of their motivation.

Notwithstanding the long historical contact between the peoples of our two countries, it is common sense to say that Malaysia would find it problematic to live next to a lawless region where guns proliferate and where a culture of routine violence has become the norm.

This would be equally true if the shoe was on the other foot, and it was the Philippines that had to live next to a zone of daily violence.

The peace accord that Malaysia helped to broker between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was intended to bring peace and normality to the people of southern Philippines, primarily. And Asean as a region cannot move on and prosper as long as there are pockets of violence and gun culture in some parts of the region.

The picture that has begun to develop is one where some of the actors and agents in that troubled part of the Philippines have resorted to the use of violence again, as they have felt themselves neglected or not given a bigger slice of the post-conflict resolution pie.

That they have chosen to be spoilers is an unfortunate decision on their part, for this incursion into Malaysia has not won them any sympathy.

But for our part, we Malaysians — and this includes our media and general public — would do well to educate ourselves more about the region we live in.

What the incursion incident has shown is that the internal politics of neighbouring countries may have an impact upon us, and that living in the global age, we cannot isolate ourselves from developments taking place in the Philippines, or Indonesia, or Thailand for that matter.

Many Malaysian students I have met have expressed an interest in subjects like European History, Western Literature, even Arab and African Studies. As a teacher, I applaud their desire to learn and, of course, I would support them in their academic endeavours.

My only wish is that there would be more Malaysians who would also take up Southeast Asian Studies, and realise that the Asean region is the one that matters to us most; before, now and in the future. –Farish A. Noor, Strait Times

Read more: We need to know our neighbours in Asean better – Columnist – New Straits Times http://www.nst.com.my/opinion/columnist/we-need-to-know-our-neighbours-in-asean-better-1.236693#ixzz2OW3fAa43