Does Sabah merit ASEAN’s attention?

Does Sabah merit ASEAN’s attention?
The death toll in the Sabah crisis has passed 60, with losses on both sides, but ASEAN has many issues on its agenda and would do well to not visibly intervene. Photo: AP
Published: 3:58 AM, March 18, 2013
Updated: 11:50 PM, March 18, 2013
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The ongoing conflict in Sabah at first seemed something of a farce when followers of the Sultan of Sulu landed with claims to the territory. But the situation has quickly developed into tragedy.

The death toll has passed 60, with losses on both sides. Kuala Lumpur’s decision to deploy military and even air units, rather than having lower-key police and counter-insurgency operations, has come into question.

Philippine President Benigno Aquino has urged Malaysia to exercise “maximum tolerance”. Sections of public opinion in the Philippines have been much more critical. Some are calling for intervention to protect not just the small band of Sulu claimants but some 80,000 Filipinos estimated to reside in Sabah.

Does the Sabah conflict merit outside attention? Does the Association of South-east Asian Nations (ASEAN), as the regional group, have the legitimate role and sufficient tools to reasonably help the situation?

The historical claim to Sabah is long-standing but Manila has never seriously and consistently taken steps against Malaysian control. Moreover, in the present situation, the two governments are acting much in agreement. As Malaysians force the Sulu claimants out from Sabah, reports are that Filipino naval forces have intercepted their vessels and taken armed men into custody while processing others who are fleeing.

The major reason for this cooperation is the Aquino administration’s goal to bring peace to the country’s long restive south. Malaysia has been a key facilitator with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Sabah developments seem aimed to postpone or even derail upcoming talks on a settlement.

There are, as such, good reasons for ASEAN to leave the situation to the two governments. Yet, while discretion is useful, the regional group cannot completely disassociate itself.


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