Tuesday, March 26, 2013


US Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter has commended both the Philippines and Malaysia for their “mature” handling of a potentially volatile cross-border incident last month.

About 60 people were killed in a Malaysian assault to flush out hundreds of Filipino followers of Jamalal Kiram III, the self-styled Sultan of Sulu, who landed in Sabah on Feb. 9. Kiram claimed they were there to take back what was theirs – a historic but long dormant claim on what used to be part of the Sulu sultanate – one of several powerful Islamic kingdoms in what are now the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia.

Carter said he conveyed America’s “appreciation and admiration for the mature way that the Filipino and Malaysian governments have together dealt with this situation.”

He said the two governments' deliberate efforts to defuse the crisis helped “minimize the regretful loss of life and calm down this situation.”

It was the worst spat between the neighbors since the Abu Sayyaf bandits raided the Malaysian diving resort on Sipadan Island and hostaged 21 people in May 2000; and a failed plot by the Philippines to retake Sabah nearly half a century ago.

President Aquino’s father, the martyred Sen. Benigno Aquino Jr. exposed in 1968 the top secret operation to train Filipino Muslims to infiltrate Sabah, foment chaos and justify a military invasion. Then President Marcos shut down the clandestine operation, allegedly approving the execution of 27 Muslim recruits in a botched cover-up that sparked a secessionist rebellion organized by a disgruntled professor, Nur Misuari.

But relations between the two nations improved steadily in recent years. Malaysia, which was accused of aiding separatist rebels, has reversed course and successfully brokered a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the last of the major secessionist groups still fighting the Manila government.

Some say this was what triggered Kiram’s followers to carry out their bizarre intrusion in Sabah. It was their way to draw attention after ostensibly ignored by both the Philippines and Malaysia.

The Philippines and Malaysia have been careful about letting the incident spiral out of control. Both are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Both have claims on parts of the Spratly Islands where they face a common, more powerful foe – China.

Years ago, Malaysian warships would reportedly sail into southern Philippines and bomb coastal villages they suspected to be harboring Filipino pirates who'd victimized their citizens or businesses. Today, they have a joint border patrol agreement that greatly minimizes the risk of conflict – that is, until the latest crisis.

“It’s a great example of countries coming together to deal with these complex political situations that could easily have led to more loss of life and terrorism,” Carter stressed.

The US is keen about keeping ASEAN unified and the region, calm. The ASEAN has been the bedrock of stability in the Asia-Pacific region, and is expected to play a major role in the US “re-balance” to Asia.

“I wanted to make two main points to the audience of Asian defense leaders who are eager for US presence and eager for US involvement and commitment,” Carter told the American Forces Press Service.

Firstly, he said, Asian nations will feel the American “re-balance” because it will be “large, multi-dimensional”. Secondly, “China is a beneficiary of the U.S. presence in the Asia-Pacific region extending over seven decades. … China’s dynamic and unfettered opportunity to develop itself on its own terms would not have happened without the US presence."

Carter will have an opportunity to speak more with Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario who will be in Washington DC this week for meetings with US State Secretary John Kerry.

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