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Revisiting The Battle Of Lahad Datu

March 29, 2013

Sabah map

Referring to it as a “battle” is a tad sensational. Considering the lopsided balance of forces, it was more like a crackdown.

Or a major skirmish. A protracted security sweep involving artillery and air strikes.

But let it be a battle. The tragedy that engulfed the quiet coastal town of Lahad Datu this month should serve as a lesson to ambitious warlords and conniving political risk takers everywhere. It’s a textbook example of how pointless wars get started.

It all began on February 9 when a large contingent arrived by motor boat in Lahad Datu, which nobody ever heard of until the same visiting contingent dug in for a showdown.

Apparently, the women, children, and gunmen were part of a “royal army” belonging to the Sultan of Sulu, whose ancestors ruled that maritime power of yore and historic trade hub.

The motley group were the vanguard of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, an elderly gentleman with kidney problems (he does dialysis) who until then was living in Taguig, a smaller city within sprawling Manila, the Philippine capital.

It’s unclear why, after receiving a paltry “rent” from the Malaysian government for years, Sultan Kiram chose to assert his rights over Sabah. Even stranger still is the fact that a lot of obscure figures also claim to be the territory’s hereditary ruler.

Inconvenient Truths

Yet it becomes suspiciously obvious that Sultan Kiram’s decision, whether it originated with him or not, was meant to disrupt the previous year’s peace talks between the Philippine government and the separatist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

In 2012, the MILF agreed to a “Framework Agreement” where a portion of Mindanao, the Philippines’ largest southern-most island, would become their autonomous enclave.

The problem was this decision by Manila to accommodate the MILF irked the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) headed by the notorious Nur Misuari, a former academic turned rebel leader turned politician. In 1996, his rebel group were granted territory of their own, the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), and it was a social and economic catastrophe, bringing no peace to the restive region.

So Kiram’s people were in Lahad Datu to press their claim on the whole of Sabah. The problem was (and is) Malaysians, Sabahans, and Filipinos have been travelling (and co-existing in utmost convenience) to and from Sabah for decades. The “royal army”‘s actions were unprecedented.

The sea border between Malaysia and the Philippines has always been porous. Filipino Muslims, the Tausug and a half dozen other ethnic sub-groups, transit freely between their homes in Sulu and Sabah.  The idea of a well-defined border separating the territories is a mere formality.

In centuries past, the Celebes Sea dividing the isle of Borneo with Mindanao was teeming with vibrant commercial traffic, mostly illicit, among petty Malay kingdoms who traded in slaves, porcelain, bird’s nest, spices, and sandalwood.

Fast forward to the present. Out of the blue, a “royal army” makes a gross tactical error and to nobody’s surprise Malaysia launches a crackdown. At first the police cordoned the troublemakers and when the stand off dragged, the military rolled in.

Come the first day of March, fighting erupted. In a matter of weeks the “royal army”’s token resistance was crushed and several dozen of their number were killed. Malaysian casualties were in the single digits.

Meanwhile, relations between the Philippines and Malaysia suddenly turned awkward. The former’s news outlets portrayed the bloodshed as a direct assault on Filipino citizens and a lot of editorial space was spent on the pedantic review of Sultan Kiram’s historic claim to Sabah.

The Malaysian government, on the other hand, finally got a taste of their own medicine.

The awful truth at the core of this violent episode is the Sabah question created the Philippines’ problem with Mindanao, where successive rebel groups have actively fought for a separate country since the 70s.

Bloody Past

What is Malaysia’s role in this convoluted drama? Well, it created the proxy armies that launched Mindanao’s secessionist rebellions. It was retribution for the Philippines’ own botched attempt at fomenting rebellion in Sabah in the late 1960s to annex it from Tunku Abdul Rahman’s nascent Federation of Malaysia.

This clandestine effort by Manila never came to fruition because of the Jabidah Massacre in 1968, where scores of Filipino Muslims were rubbed out by the Filipino officers training them for the invasion of Sabah.

Malaysia is behind the MNLF and the MILF. It recruited their founding members, armed them, and launched them against the Philippines. This explains why Malaysia is always a third party whenever Manila and the MILF sit down for peace talks.

Of course, the MNLF and the MILF aren’t always complicit tools of Kuala Lumpur. Nur Misuari’s MNLF, for example, has distanced itself from Malaysia. Misuari has in fact expressed his support for the beleaguered Sultan Kiram.

But once upon a time, Misuari was a very willing accomplice to Malaysia’s designs. This is confirmed by a recently published biography that offers a quite flattering portrait of a complex man equal parts politician and incorrigible rebel. From Tom Stern’s Nur Misuari – An Authorized Biography (Anvil Publishing, 2012):

In late 1969, cashing in on the offer of Malaysia to train rebels, Misuari led 90 hand-picked men to a training camp in West Malaysia—Pangkor Island, in the state of Trak. There, the men underwent more than a year of training, including warfare, military history and tactics, weapons, politics, communications, and self-descent from helicopters

…After graduation, dressed in Malaysian uniforms, The 90 flew to Tawaw, in Sabah. They were housed there for a few days, then loaded into smuggling boats with 90hp Yamaha motors, in which they rooster-tailed across the Sulu Sea, crossed the Moro Gulf, and landed in Malabag, Lanao del Sur.

…Of course, Misuari’s main obsession was accumulating a fighting force. In his outreach, Misuari hiked as much as ten days to hiding places of men itching for a fight. In addition to recruits he trained in Sulu, Malaysia soon sent him a second group, Batch 2, called the “Three Hundred,” and these were joined by the secret Batch 3, a group of Libyan-trained Moro guerrillas…

…Misuari trained with them in the rain, and slept with them under thatched roofs, living on rice and whatever they could muster.

By the end of 1970, after little more than a year of proselytizing, the trainees were able to recruit and train almost 30,000 mujahideen [sic] in Mindanao.

What happened in Lahad Datu more than four decades after Malaysia sent its first batch of rebels into Philippine territory is what happens to  countries that engage in subterfuge. The chaos Malaysia nurtured for so long came back to indirectly haunt them. It’s the same with how rogue elements of the Taliban have turned on Pakistan.

And Kiram? He’s somebody else’s pawn. The stunt he pulled, a poorly thought out and symbolic gesture that cost real lives, is exactly what caused numerous wars in different eras throughout history. It’s when a leader miscalculates his opportunities, driven by a belief in personal gain that’s enmeshed with a purportedly noble cause, only to witnesses the whole gamble fail.

Note: Nur Misuari is the elderly gentleman in a  blue shirt with his raised fist clenched in the air.

Note: Nur Misuari is the elderly gentleman in a blue shirt with his raised fist clenched in the air.

For a more recent example of this ploy, ponder how ex-Georgian President Mikhail Saakashvili ordered the invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, thinking the Beijing Olympics would cover his actions, except Moscow retaliated with brute force and Russian tanks almost reached Tblisi.

The resulting coverage of the fighting in Lahad Datu also offered a splendid opportunity to watch Malaysia’s soldiers in action. Available footage and pictures reveal that its ground forces, in terms of equipment, vehicles, and firepower, are no different than the Philippines’ own.

At the moment Malaysian authorities are hard-pressed to weed out stragglers simply because Malaysians and Filipinos are indistinguishable.

This is not the first time that Southeast Asian neighbors got entangled with each other though.

In the late 1950s the CIA launched a full-scale invasion of Indonesia from the southern Philippines.

But that’s another story.