The Battle For Sabah: Who Are The Players Of This Strange Saga? What Do They Want?

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Malaysian soldiers in Sabah, Borneo
Malaysian soldiers in Sabah, Borneo

A strange military conflict has erupted over the past few weeks in a corner of the world largely ignored by the mass media.

In Sabah, a state in northeastern Borneo, a huge island in Southeast Asia that is shared by Malaysia, Brunei and Indonesia, an armed Filipino group claiming to represent an entity called the "Sultanate of Sulu" has seized a village, declaring that Sabah belongs to the Philippines.

Not surprisingly, as Sabah has been a part of Malaysia since 1963, military forces from Kuala Lumpur were dispatched to Sabah to quell the insurgency.

On Thursday, Malaysia rejected a ceasefire offer from the armed Filipino Muslim group with Prime Minister Najib Razak demanding that the militants "unconditionally surrender" and surrender their weapons.

Thus far, at least 60 people have died, mostly Filipinos. More casualties are likely, following Razak’s proclamation that his soldiers will hunt down the insurgents.

What on the surface appears to be a clash between a powerful national military, overwhelming a small obscure militancy, is actually far more complex and confounding.

Sabah, rich in palm oil, one of Malaysia’s key industries, and, perhaps, possessing a wealth of oil and gas, has been fought over and coveted by a bewildering array of local and foreign entities.

The conflict also exposes historical disputes between two erstwhile allies, Malaysia and the Philippines.

International Business Times spoke to an expert on the region to sort out this tangled saga of Sabah.

Jonah Blank is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corp., a think-tank in Arlington, Va.

IB TIMES: How long have Malaysia and an armed group from the Philippines – the "Royal Army of Sulu" -- been fighting over Sabah in Borneo? And what is at the heart of this conflict? Natural resources?

BLANK: The armed group at the heart of the current conflict is new, but the dispute over Sabah goes back many decades -- perhaps as far as the 19th century.  There are natural resources at stake, but the dispute has never been a top priority for either Malaysia or the Philippines.

IB TIMES: Who exactly are the Filipinos that are fighting for Sabah? They claim to be descendants of the "Sultanate of Sulu." Do they belong to some organization? Are they Muslim separatists?

BLANK: The composition of the armed group is unknown -- they claim to represent the sultanate of Sulu, but Philippine President Benigno Aquino describes them as being pawns of his political adversaries.  It is not known whether they have any ties to Muslim separatist groups active in the southern Philippines.

IB TIMES: Does the Philippines government in Manila in any way support the armed group? Or are they acting independently?

BLANK: There is no evidence of any connection between the armed intruders and the Philippines government -- indeed, as I noted, the Filipino government sees the group as a tool of its political opponents. 

Manila would have nothing to gain by supporting this group, and much to lose.

IB TIMES: Does the Philippines claim sovereignty over Sabah?

BLANK: Technically, the Philippines government inherited the claims of the sultanate of Sulu, which leased Sabah to the British in the nineteenth century.  But after achieving independence from Britain, the government of Malaysia has consistently rejected this claim, and Manila has not strenuously pressed it.

IB TIMES: How might these crisis impact elections in both Philippines and Malaysia?

BLANK: The leaders of both Malaysia and the Philippines have elections coming up -- and both leaders see this crisis as a potential embarrassment.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is concerned that the stand-off could make him appear weak on national security, and might stir up longstanding allegations that his party has permitted Filipino immigrants to vote illegally in Sabah.  Philippine President Aquino has charged that the militants are supported by his political opponents: he doesn't want to look like a bystander as Filipino citizens face off against the Malaysian military, but also doesn't want provoke a conflict with a neighboring country.

IB TIMES: What is Sabah’s principal economic activity? Is it palm oil? How big is this industry? And how important is it to Malaysia?

BLANK: Sabah produces about one-quarter of Malaysia's palm oil production, much of which goes to China.  This is a very important part of the Malaysian economy, and Sabah is the top region for palm oil production (although, because of its relatively small size, its total output is not a majority of the national output).

IB TIMES: Haven’t western foreign oil companies invested heavily in energy projects in Sabah?

BLANK: Yes, western energy companies have invested in projects in Sabah, and the region contains many potential sites for future exploration.

IB TIMES: Are the Chinese involved in Sabah at all? Financially or politically?

BLANK: China is the market for much of the palm oil that comes from Sabah, and has a keen interest in the energy sector of the state.

IB TIMES: Who are the native people is Sabah? Are they Malaysian citizens?

BLANK: The people of Sabah are Malaysian citizens.  Most are indigenous to the island of Borneo, and many are from groups such as the Dayaks.  There is a significant population of ethnic Chinese, whose ancestors migrated during British colonial times (or even earlier).

IB TIMES: Does not Malaysia have a problem with illegal immigration from the Philippines? Have Filipinos migrated to Sabah as well?

BLANK: Illegal immigration of Filipinos to Sabah is a significant issue and a political problem for Prime Minister Najib. According to the Philippines government, 800,000 Philippine citizens currently reside in Sabah.

Sabah is only an hour away from the closest Sulu islands by speedboat, so there are longstanding cultural and family connections between the inhabitants of Sabah and Sulu.

IB TIMES: Does Singapore or Indonesia have a stake in what happens in Sabah?

BLANK: Both Singapore and Indonesia have stakes in the Sabah conflict, because both states are highly dependent on regional stability. 

Singapore has economic interests throughout the island of Borneo, which is divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei.  Indonesia is more directly affected, since Sabah borders the Indonesian state of East Kalimantan, and several parts of Indonesia share cultural or ethnic bonds with the populations of Sabah, Sulu and nearby portions of the southern Philippines.

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