Some six years ago to the date, 235 Filipinos who were loyal to the Sultan of Sulu and many of whom carrying ancient swords, arrived by boats in Lahad Datu District, Sabah, Malaysia from Tawi-Tawi in a quixotic mission — to reclaim Sabah.
It started a more than a month’s battle between the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and the Malaysian state forces.
The outcome was predictable, with the Malaysians overwhelming the ill-equipped warriors of the Sultan, but the response to the crisis of then President Noynoy Aquino raised several questions.
The Malaysian authorities initially tried to negotiate the surrender of the Sultan’s followers which was accompanied by surprising threats from Noynoy.
A consideration for a peaceful end in the standoff, according to retired Lt. Gen. Datuk Seri Zaini Mohd Said, former field commander of the Malaysian army, was the effort of his country “in its role as the facilitator towards getting the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Manila peace accord finalized and the establishment of the Bangsamoro state in southern Philippines.”
“If force were to result in many casualties on the Sulu side, then Malaysia’s plans and prospects of helping and participating in the development in the land of the Moros will diminish. It cannot be easy when there are to be vengeful and angry people from within the population there,” he added.
When the crisis escalated resulting in the assault of Malaysian authorities on Kiram’s supporters, Noynoy was obviously getting guidance from Malaysia, as he parroted then Prime Minister Najib Razak’s version of how the firefight erupted up to the casualty figures that resulted from the clash.
The Palace, through then Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, initially denied reports of a skirmish and the deaths resulting from it but he obviously mouthed a Malaysian line since reports from news agencies were already recounting casualties.
A spokesman for the Sulu Sultanate then accused Roxas of talking in behalf of the Malaysian government. Aquino then launched his habit of blaming opponents for the crisis as he suggested political undertones on the Sabah incursion in identifying certain groups in funding the Sabah expedition.
All of the Palace briefings contained the Malaysian line, including Aquino asking Kiram’s followers to retreat from Sabah while imposing a deadline.
There was nothing said about asking Malaysia to assure the safety of, if not the Sultan’s followers, then the estimated 800,000 Filipinos who reside in Sabah who were then in danger of Malaysian backlash.
Aquino issued a statement which called, short of ordering, the followers of Kiram to surrender unconditionally which was the same demand of Razak on what he called then as Sabah invaders.
The Sulu Sultan through his spokesman said the Sabah adventure would have not been launched had Noynoy consulted them on the process of forming the Bangsamoro region.
Kiram said he even sent Noynoy a letter explaining the need for the Sultanate’s part in the Bangsamoro process which was exclusively between the Aquino administration and the MILF.
Aquino said the letter was lost in “the bureaucratic maze.”
Aquino apparently disassociated with the Sultan or his claim on Sabah to prevent offending Malaysia.
The fighting which started in Lahad Datu where the Sultan’s men have camped out to be surrounded by the Malaysian police later on spread to other parts of Sabah.
One of the grudges of the Sultan was the token rent being paid by Malaysia for the oil-rich territory which is something like P75,000 a year, which was what the British government paid the Sultanate two centuries before.
Aquino remained unmoved even as Filipinos fled Sabah en masse as a result of the reported brutal treatment from Malaysian state security forces.
There were supposedly instances when Filipinos were shot while already in custody while those confined in prison were reportedly starved.
Noynoy, instead, blamed the Sultan for resurrecting a dormant issue.
Concerns over the possible violation of human rights of Filipinos in the Malaysian sweep were never entertained.
Noynoy and Najib appeared to have formed a strong partnership during those period in some mysterious circumstances, including allegations of Malaysian considerations to keep the Philippines out of the conflict.
The irony is that Najib is set to go to court for his first of many corruption trials related to a financial scandal while Noynoy has yet to get his comeuppance.