Next step after Bangsamoro peace deal: Philippines to pay up – drop Sabah claim

So what happens to the Philippines’ claim on the Malaysian state of Sabah following the signing of the Bangsamoro “peace deal” between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF)? It seems this is now conveniently in the backburner as Filipinos, on cue, dance to the tune of Malacanang’s “celebration of peace”.

But left out of the loop in this much-celebrated erstwhile posterboy of international “peace” collaboration were “smaller Islamic militant groups in Mindanao” which, as is now clearly evident, includes people and groups still loyal to the Sultan of Sulu as well as the MILF’s “main rival” the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). Interestingly, the origins of the MILF as a militant breakaway group from the more moderate MNLF was over disagreements with the direction being taken by the MNLF leadership back in 1977 towards renouncing its own separatist agenda in favour of a more “conciliatory” deal with Manila then, a direction which bore fruit ten years later for the MNLF…

In January 1987, the MNLF signed an agreement relinquishing its goal of independence for Muslim regions and accepting the government’s offer of autonomy. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the next largest faction, refused to accept the accord and initiated a brief offensive that ended in a truce later that month. By one estimate the Mindanao-based Moro Islamic Liberation Front fielded around 3,000 troops.

'You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You.'
‘You will keep in perfect peace those whose minds are steadfast, because they trust in You.’
It seems it’s déjà vu all over again for Muslim Mindanao. The bandit groups’ acronyms and the euphemistic names given to “autonomous” Islamic territories may have changed but not the overall situation and certainly not the question on the Philippines’ long-standing claim on currently-Malaysian Sabah. Was Mindanao “peace” supposedly architected by President Benigno Simeon “BS” Aquino III, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and MILF Chairman Al Haj Murad Ebrahim achieved at the expense of the Sabah claim?

So far, all parties have been silent on the implications of this “achievement” as far as this elephant in the room is concerned. It is, suffice to say, an elephant that both cannot be ignored and cannot be made to go away. Former Senator Jovito Salonga who was part of Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez’s team dispatched to London in 1963 to negotiate the Sabah claim brilliantly articulated the clear historical reference that frames the Philippines’ still-standing position on the matter…

Thousands of years ago, what is now known as the Philippines and what is known today as Borneo used to constitute a single historical, cultural, economic unit. Authoritative Western scientists have traced the land bridges that connected these two places. The inhabitants of the Philippines and Borneo come from the same racial stock, they have the same color, they have or used to have similar customs and traditions. Borneo is only 18 miles away from us today.

North Borneo, formerly known as Sabah, was originally ruled by the sultan of Brunei. In 1704, in gratitude for help extended to him by the sultan of Sulu in suppressing a revolt, the sultan of Brunei ceded North Borneo to the Sulu sultan.

Here, our claim really begins. Over the years, the various European countries, including Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, acknowledged the sultan of Sulu as the sovereign ruler of North Borneo. They entered into various treaty arrangements with him.

The claim to Sabah which remained enshrined in the Philippines’ 1973 Constitution was weakened by the 1987 Constitution which dropped the words “by historical and legal rights” from the definition of the national territory. This paved the way for the drafting of Senate Bill 206 which sought to amend Repubic Act 5546 of 1968 which describes “the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty.” For now, Senate Bill 206 which, evidently, encapsulates President BS Aquino’s “promise” to drop the Philippines’ claim on Sabah is yet to be signed into law.

More disturbing, however, are the real implications of this bizarrely naive international exercise in negotiating with a terrorist organisation like the MILF. With its more than 10,000-strong active membership and cellular command structure, there is no guarantee that all of its members will lay down their arms. And, make no mistake, the MILF as recently as July 2013 was described as an “Islamic separatist terrorist organization” in a Stanford University document. The document states that the MILF “denies links to the Abu Sayyaf Group, Al-Qaeda, and Jemaah Islamiya” but that these bigger groups “through funding” have “bought loyalty from MILF members, and through more direct philosophical similarities, these groups have shaped MILF’s evolving tactics to secure an independent Bangsamoro state.”


According to Jane’s Intelligence Review, hundreds of MILF members from Mindanao trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, where they also secured strong ties with bin Laden. The National Bureau of Asian Research also reports that Al Qaeda has sent trainers to MILF training camps in Mindanao.

Philippine Star columnist Federico Pascual sums up this “achievement” of the Second Aquino Administration in one sentence: “Ignoring other sectors and rebel groups, Malacañang chose to talk only to the MILF, with Malaysia whispering behind the curtains as facilitator.”

Recipe for disaster? Only time will tell.

[Photo for #SelfieForPeace tweeted by Jee Y. Geronimo.]