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Instrusion into Sabah: Scapegoating the Opposition before knowing the facts

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What really is the motive for the irresponsible secrecy by the BN on a real national security issue in Sabah, wonders Angeline Loh.

Hishammuddin at Lahad Datu - Photograph: Malaysian Insider
Hishammuddin at Lahad Datu – Photograph: Malaysian Insider

The way the BN election campaign is going, one would wonder why current complainants of Pakatan Rakyat policies didn’t think of raising their grouses over the previous three and a half years, but kept quiet until now.

Blaming Opposition politicians – for, amongst other things, the current conflict in Sabah – is nothing new. The BN has always sought to throw mud at them, to hide its own dirty backyard. Now, the BN is again trying to seek foreign help to implicate the Opposition in this most recent clash with the Philippine Sulu Sultanate.

At about 3.30pm on Sunday (3 March 2013), a breaking news broadcast was aired on ntv7 announcing that five more Malaysian commandos were shot in Semporna, Sabah. Identification details were withheld. News updates would follow throughout the day. These deaths were the latest additions to the five casualties over the past two days since early February, when Sulu forces first landed in Lahad Datu.

The situation appears to be more urgent than expected. On 1 March, Philippines President Benigno Aquino was reported to have given a warning to the Sultan of Sulu that those involved in the incursion of Lahad Datu would face serious penalties if they did not withdraw (ntv7, 7Edition). This ultimatum has been ignored, and recalcitrant Sulu fighters are still within Malaysia’s borders continuing to skirmish with Malaysian police commandos.

In contrast, Prime Minister Najib had made no significant public statement or given any reassurance to Malaysians that peace would be restored in Sabah or that Malaysia would participate in negotiations to peacefully and amicably resolve the matter.

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International disputes involving Malaysia are not new. In 2008, Malaysia’s dispute with Singapore over Pulau Batu Putih/Pedra Branca was resolved by international arbitration. Why not these claims by the Sulu Sultan over Sabah? There was no indication that anything was coming to a head long before; so why should this sudden violent assertion surface now?

Comparing the Philippine government’s immediate reaction to the situation and the Malaysian government’s delayed reaction, it seems that the Malaysian government treats this conflict as an internal affair whereas the Philippine government treats it as an international one. The Philippine government has lost no time in trying to unearth the root of this affair and is studying the possibility of settling the dispute at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) (ABN news).

In a rather unexpected and what may be viewed as unprofessional handling of the situation, PM Najib has noticeably not taken similar measures to show a willingness to resolve the dispute in the international arena. It seems inappropriate to use police forces to defend the country against external military incursion. The implication is that Najib sees this as an internal matter only; by right, he should have sent the army to counter the military incursion in Lahad Datu, instead of the police.

Najib should have immediately reacted by making a public statement on the situation as the Philippines President did. But the Malaysian premier was perceived to be keeping silent, carrying on with his election campaign as if the ‘invasion’ of Lahad Datu was unimportant. One might suspect that he was at a loss as to what to do. Instead, Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein is left to handle this international affair. The Defence and Foreign ministries remained mute.

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If Najib’s government was doing anything about this sudden ‘invasion’ and keeping things under wraps, it is certainly wrong to keep such a serious issue from the public. Even the East Malaysian news daily, the Borneo Post complained of “a trickle of information forthcoming from official sources as to what was happening on the ground” that would spark speculation (The Borneo Post). There were also conflicting reports from Malaysian authorities of casualties in this conflict and how these had been sustained (ABNNews).

The Philippine Inquirer reported on 3 March, that the humanitarian/consular team sent to Sabah by the government was delayed from entering Lahad Datu and were kept in Kota Kinabalu for two days. A navy ship also sent by the Philippine government to bring back Filipinos illegally staying in Sabah and who were willing to return home was not allowed to dock for five days by Malaysian border patrols.

But the humanitarian/consular team was later allowed into Lahad Datu (Inquirer, 3 March). There is no explanation for this delay or for barring the ship from docking in Sibutu except tight border controls.

What exactly is the BN administration up to, withholding information even from the Philippine government on this issue? Aquino has already called his cabinet to deal with the issue, and is looking at all options for a peaceful process (ABNnews, 2 March). He admitted that this was an embarrassment to the Philippines.

Najib, on the other hand, has resorted to making the Opposition a scape-goat, whoever the mischief maker may be. Now, Najib and the mainstream media go all out to find fault with a statement by Tian Chua, the Batu MP, for suggesting that Umno may be involved in this debacle. But the PM seems to over-react by twisting his words, saying Tian Chua insulted the police personnel who gave their lives defending Sabah. As far as I know, Tian Chua had only mentioned “Umno” and said nothing to denigrate the police commandos who had fallen in the line of duty (Malaysian Insider, 4 March).

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So, what is this really about? Are Najib and the BN so desperate to retain power that the PM has forgotten the nature of Sabah’s security problem or his responsibilities as Prime Minister, and can only focus on the coming GE13, which seems to be slipping away? What really is the motive for this irresponsible secrecy by the BN on a real national security issue? The rakyat awaits the truth.

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