On the Sultan of Sulu-Sabah conflict

It’s 21 lives lost to date and Jamalul Kiram III ought to bring them in as martyrs – unlike their leader they knew and followed the chain of command. These were the first casualties of the private war (their aggressive occupation of Lahad Datu had not the official backing of the Philippine Government) of an apparently jaded Sultan and his desperate counsel. These people didn’t have to die if the Sultan did not defy the command of the Commander in Chief. The Sultan had to pursue the objective “for honor’s sake”.

Our sense of honor is quite the opposite of what – since I’m writing this on a Sunday I’ll use these figureheads to deliver a point – Mohammed, Jesus, and Buddha lived and taught which is that honor is the twin of humility and obedience instead of what humans know it to be as the kin of pride. The three master teachers showed that paradoxically one has to lose face, that is, what we know as earthly honor, in order to earn and know true honor. Jesus, I believe, had His own thoughts about how to go about attaining His mission but always He redirects Himself to obey and honor His Father – His Father wanted Him to die a robber’s death and despite suffering horribly at the hands of humans to love all men, women and children including criminals. In being faithful to His Father, He found honor: “seated at the right hand of God the Father.”

Obedience. When it counts. When it is the right thing to do.

I disagree with many of media’s comments about the President’s “immaturity” and “falling into a trap” with regard the aggressive occupation of Lahad Datu by Sultan Kiram III and his followers. On the contrary, it is in fact Kiram III who has shown himself, to the public and ASEAN community, a poor leader; embarrassing many Filipinos in the international community with his unintelligent stand. You don’t disobey your Commander in Chief, the President, when he issues out a command (as opposed to a mere suggestion). As the Commander in Chief, he has all the authority and citizens who defies this authority should know and is liable to be criminalized (no less than soldiers and officers who having defied their commanders are tried in court). The soldier doesn’t attack the enemy on his own without word from his or her leader and without having been debriefed over tactics. Disobedience to your leader, in times of emergencies, especially war and conflict, means breaking of the ranks and subsequent confusion and death among the ranks not to mention losing the war. The soldier on the ground trusts that his leader(s) are making their decisions out of real concern for him or her and so he or she obeys. His life at such time depends on it. Apparently, Filipinos, in general, think this authority can be defied as nonchalantly as when they defy a ‘no jaywalking’ sign.

The Sultan said he and his people are not the enemy but his public defiance of the official command of the highest leader in this land has made him so. Kiram III, being himself the leader of a community should know the value of obedience in his followers and those he has rule over. The President is in fact being kind toward him after his public defiance. In the rest of the world, his kind are called anarchists.

Which brings me to my second criticism of this Sulu-Sabah-Mindanao conflict that bespeaks of the Archipelago’s general lot.

Anyone who has put a magnifying glass on the history of the conflict and the many paths it has branched out into will surmise that at the heart of the problem is a posse of leaders each of who only care for his (they’re men) rule and interest. They each want to be the ruler. They each want the same parcel of land. They each want to pursue his vision of that land’s future. They each are not open to reason and view other than his own. They’re your 21st century Montagues and Capulets except that this edition has no romance going to redeem it a bit. Into this enter the many external personalities who for the sake of their individual interests provide one or the other side with fuel so that both sides can continue fighting each other while their lands are plundered behind their backs. These external personalities are Hydra’s many heads except that these heads, being the mercenary kind, are out to eat each other along with the main head. A sick situation actually.

Is Sulu a nation and state independent of the Philippines? No. It is under the Republic.

But the way these posse of leaders have been conducting themselves show otherwise. These leaders are the luckiest because even while they are causing unnecessary deaths to Filipino soldiers and ordinary citizens, year in and out (an aside: should Catholics even wonder why a local statue of Mary sheds blood?), the State is relatively kind to them and hasn’t declared them Enemies of the State. Sultan Kiram III and his folks are residing in the heart of the Metro – in Taguig – and relatively free of eviction pressure from the State. And why does he live in the Metro when his sultanate is in Sulu? What pride does he continue to have as the Sultan of Sulu when his place and people continue to be in the country’s top three poorest provinces (in 2006, poverty incidence is almost half of the population) not to mention the community he leads in Taguig is among the City’s poorest (i.e. landless in the City)? In his 74 years or half of that, what has he done to improve the life of his people? How can he want Sabah (and anyway it’s people through a plebiscite have shown that they wanted with Malaysia not Philippines) when he can’t make or demand improvements in his current sultanate?

In the rest of the Archipelago, in the midst of this conflict, citizens in general are distractingly impervious to what’s happening. Take this Panagbenga, in Baguio City, for one. Is it just me but I can’t reconcile how on one hand citizens could have orgy eating, drinking, laughing as if there’s no trouble at the door – can we have a more sober celebration when it is called for? Insisting with the same level of happy-happy in the midst of war and drawn out bloodshed in that part of our country is escapism. To my recall, there has not been a massive protest by citizens against the perpetrators of the situation in Mindanao. Have Filipino citizens by continuously running away from issues needing their decision and/or voice caused irrevocable damage to their psyches which is why we can feature and weep for a goddamned crocodile but not for a million and more dead Mindanaoan elders? Mindanao stands on the precipice of anarchy while the mainland thrives in apathy, escapism, and helplessness. I mentioned virtuosity in citizens in a couple of past articles – this is what the nation needs right now. I don’t understand why Filipinos – citizens – say they’re helpless; it’s like saying they’re afraid to act as the owners of their own homes; which is why trespassers are inside and deciding for them.

Yet if this conflict is the Sultan’s stand for the right of indigenous peoples to their land, I can understand why it has gone to the extreme. The right, though accorded lofty and moving litanies echoed in the equally lofty halls of the United Nations, remains, in the real world, the ideal. The continued lukewarmness of mainstream communities to the right of indigenous peoples is right there in this world’s most tragic and saddest stories. Much of the IPs’ dispossession of their properties is ironically wrought by their formally-educated brothers – paying the low-educated IPs shillings when the property is actually worth gold.

Which brings me to my third thought on the conflict: Kiram III’s (and the earlier Kirams’) fight is also economic. Going through Manuel Quezon III’s blog article, North Borneo (Sabah): Annotated Timeline 1640s-present, there has been formal requests through then President Macapagal-Arroyo to the Malaysia government, to increase its lease payment of HK$13,300 (PHP70,000) – WTF? the rent of a sprawling office space in Makati CBD (i.e. PHP500K or so monthly) appears outrageous next to this! – in order to reflect the land’s market value (the latest request was PHP500M annually). PHP500M is a discount, considering you have Ayala Land paying the Philippine government PHP24.33B for its FTI property in Taguig.

The correct question then is not whether the lease indicates a rightful proprietorship by Kiram III – of course it does! a property owner does not receive actual rent money from a spirit – which media has been unintelligently hyping about but rather, is Malaysia paying the current market value of the lease? If it’s not, what does the law say – either the lessee pays the correct and adjusted current value of the lessor’s property or faces eviction. Basic fact in property ownership.

The economics of the lease which then President GMA understood, herself an economist, is I believe the more significant for Kiram III and his family (i.e. if his move to occupy Sabah is not a political trap to discredit the current administration as some intelligence indicate. Otherwise if the intelligence report is true shame on that Jesuit priest.) because (a) annexing Sabah to Sulu will be another headache, having shown that in Sulu alone he continues to leave it in shambles – he or his successors will only end up re-selling Sabah to the highest bidder and who knows who this bidder is (I hope it’s not China), (b) were Malaysia to purchase Sabah (which it has indicated in the past) on the basis that it contributes US$100B to Malaysia’s GDP, Kiram III will be a zillionaire! He can then retire in peace, comfort, and provide security for his children. And perhaps work on some improvements in Sulu.

Negotiations with the Malaysian government should start with a relatively moderate focus – economics. On the negotiation table, the litmus test for Malaysia is, will it not scoff at the Sultan’s demand for a PHP500M lease (or, in case of sale, the market value) yet agree to it when, say, a Duke from a country in the North makes the same demand? But for the Philippine government to pave the way and somehow repair the misunderstanding as a result of its diplomatic faux pas toward him, the Sultan has to first obey the President’s command to move out of Sabah because his followers’ presence there is regarded as an aggressive act by the Malaysian government. Until then he can only be regarded as a dissident.

Unfortunately for the 74-year old Sultan, this is the law of the modern world. The rules have changed. But such rules make for a secure and stable community and nation. Shame on his counsel who tells him otherwise.

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