ANALYSIS: Sabah crisis: Timing of survey results suspicious

Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The Pulse Asia survey results suggest that Philippine President Benigno Aquino III continues to enjoy high approval ratings (68 per cent )and trust ratings (70 per cent) despite a storm of criticism for his handling of the conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia over the landing of the Sultan of Sulu's armed followers in Sabah on February 9.

It must be pointed out that the survey was conducted on February 24-28, before Malaysian security forces launched their attacks starting on March 1 against the sultan's men, who had seized and occupied the coastal village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah, in their search-and-exterminate operations to drive out the invaders. More than 62 men from the sultan's "royal army" and 10 Malaysian men have been reported killed in the fighting, marked by atrocities on the invaders and the arrest of more than 100 people suspected of taking part in the landing.

The timing of the release of the survey results-in the midst of the intensification of the campaign for the midterm elections in May, in which the Palace considers it crucial for its senatorial candidates to make a 12-0 sweep-leads to suspicion that the survey is being used to condition the voters' minds not to blame the administration for the butchery of Filipino Muslim men in Sabah.

At a briefing, Edwin Lacierda, the president's spokesperson, told reporters that the Sabah fighting did not affect the approval ratings of Aquino. Asked if the survey results reflected how Filipinos viewed the government's handling of the conflict, Lacierda said: "I cannot evaluate it."

But how could Lacierda say that the Sabah fighting did not affect the President's approval ratings when the survey was conducted before the fighting broke? The conflict with Malaysia over the Sabah landing of the sultan's men is the most serious foreign policy crisis faced by the Aquino administration since it took office in 2010. Its competence in handling foreign policy has come under severe criticism over its failure to protect the Filipino nationals involved from the excessive use of force by Malaysian security forces. Malaysia has deployed up to 10 battalions of army and police troops as well as its air force to crush 200-odd armed men sent by the Sultan of Sulu to reassert the sultanate's claim to Sabah as part of its former ancestral territory.

The scale of the Malaysian military operations against the remnants of the sultan's forces, now reduced to less than 100 and hiding in the jungles of Sabah, and the reported atrocities committed by the Malaysian troops, have not been seen in Southeast Asia since the Japanese invasion of the region in 1941 during World War II. These have attracted international attention as a case of wholesale violation of human rights by the Malaysian government. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an end to violence in Sabah and "a dialogue of all parties for a peaceful resolution of the conflict".

But Malaysia brusquely brushed the call aside. It also contemptuously rejected a unilateral ceasefire offered by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. In rejecting the ceasefire call, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said it was not acceptable "unless the militants surrendered unconditionally".

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, in a visit to the conflict area, said: "We want the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand over their weapons." He said that if the sultan's followers did not surrender, Malaysia's security forces would continue "to track them down for as long as it takes to eliminate them." This policy of annihilation and hot pursuit continues. "I informed President Aquino that they need to surrender unconditionally and their weapons have to be handed over to us," Razak said.

The Philippine government has feebly asked the Malaysian government to exercise "maximum restraint," and the fact that Malaysia has not stopped its genocidal policy in its hot pursuit of the remnants of the sultan's men indicates that Malaysia did not have an iota of respect for the Philippines' intervention.

The Philippine government's failure to protect its citizens subjected to atrocities in Sabah and its subordination to Malaysia's mailed-fist policy make up a significant issue in the May elections. The administration cannot sweep under the rug its responsibility of protecting Filipinos from atrocities in Sabah regardless of whether or not the Sultan of Sulu was justified in sending an expedition to reassert a territorial claim to Sabah. The landing in Sabah presented the Philippine government with a fait accompli and also caught Malaysia by surprise, and the overriding issue that confronted the Philippine government is to protect Filipinos in Sabah from human rights abuses and atrocities by Malaysian authorities.

This is the issue that is relevant to Filipino voters, especially the Muslims, in Mindanao: whether or not they can trust their government to protect them when they are in trouble in other lands, or at least ensure that they will be given due process. Filipinos in Sabah are not getting due process from Malaysia, which is operating under its draconian emergency laws.

The Aquino administration cannot remain complacent that its ineptitude in handling its conflict with Malaysia over Sabah and its failure to protect Filipinos there will not damage its electoral support in Muslim Mindanao. It has already lost a significant electoral constituency in that region.

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