SINGAPORE — The kidnap-for-ransom hostage crisis triggered by the Abu Sayyaf rebels in a remote corner of the South China Sea has attracted worldwide attention. But of even greater significance, it has further strained ties between the Philippines and Malaysia, as each country blames the other for allowing the crisis to drag on, making them both appear inept in the eyes of the world.

The Philippines and Malaysia are core members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, a grouping of 10 countries and 600 million people. Though both countries are friendly to each other, their bilateral ties, to begin with, lack the warmth and camaraderie when compared to the ties each country shares with other ASEAN members.

The cause for this can be traced to the Philippine territorial claim to the East Malaysian state of Sabah which also serves as a haven for illegal immigrants from the southern Philippines. Geographically, Sabah is in fact closer to the Philippines than peninsular Malaysia which is separated from the state by 1,000 km of South China Sea.

Relative physical proximity and cultural similarities are cogent factors that underline Manila’s claim that Sabah once belonged to the sultan of Sulu, a province of the southern Philippines. The state fell into the hands of an American-German company which transferred its sovereignty to the British in the late 19th century.

When Sabah became a state of the Federation of Malaysia on Sept. 16, 1963, the Philippines felt it was time to officially press for the return of the state to the heirs of the sultan who were its citizens.

When a change of government in Indonesia ended its confrontation policy in 1966, Manila still continued to pursue its claim to Sabah. Since then, the passage of time and change of governments in Manila have muted but not buried the Philippines’ claim, regarded by Malaysia as far-fetched despite records provided by Manila.

Sabah has a long and jagged coastline, and the waters separating it from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, are dotted with numerous uninhabited islands. These geographical features of Sabah provided sanctuary for Muslim guerrillas fighting a secessionist war in the southern Philippines against the Christian government in Manila from the 1970s.

The Filipino Muslim escapees not only became refugees, but actually stayed on in the sparsely-populated state when the time came for their repatriation after the war in their homeland ended in the 1980s. There were plenty of jobs for workers in the construction and plantation industries in a booming Sabah economy, a contrast to their ravaged and war-torn homeland in the southern Philippines.

As most Sabahans were not interested in these back-breaking jobs, the Filipino refugees moved in to serve an economic need. Over the years they and their local-born children have settled in Sabah, numbering some 600,000 or nearly a third of the state’s present population.

Today, with Sabah facing an economic recession, moves by the state’s overstretched and exasperated authorities to repatriate them permanently have failed. Instead of returning to Mindanao, many of those sent back in boats headed for the islands and camped there. From there, they returned to Sabah within the next few days.

Although they were not among those repatriated from Sabah, the Abu Sayyaf, one of the many Muslim factions fighting for an independent Muslim homeland, nevertheless blended in with the Filipino Muslim immigrants in Sabah.

On April 23, heavily armed, a group of them swept down on Sipadan, an island off the coast of Sabah, and kidnapped a group of Caucasian tourists, Malaysian workers and a Filipino diving instructor. They then headed for the Philippine island of Jolo and from there pressed their ransom demands.

Over the next five months, the kidnappers released 20 of the 21 hostages (except the Filipino) upon payment of huge ransoms brokered by Libya. But they surprised everyone who expected the crisis to end by raiding Pandanan, another Sabah island, and made off with 3 Malaysian hostages on Sept. 10.

The latest kidnapping incident humiliated the Philippines more than Malaysia, prompting a military crackdown on the terrorists. But Malaysia has not condoned the move since the lives of the hostages may be endangered, with the kidnappers using them as human shields.

For years, the Philippines and Malaysia have kept mum about the issue of Sabah, an indication either of the Malaysians’ helplessness over their failure to repatriate the illegal immigrants or the Philippines’ frustration that its claim to Sabah was being ignored.

Perhaps a common interest to maintain ASEAN solidarity prompted both countries not to actively pursue the question. But the kidnap-for-ransom in Sipadan and Pandanan by the Abu Sayyaf has put paid to all acts of pretense as it flung wide open the doors of the cupboard to expose the musty skeletons in their diplomatic closet.

The second kidnapping incident spurred both countries to publicly state that the time had come for them to have joint security patrols in the troubled region. Nevertheless, each could not help but blame the other for a situation which made them both appear incapable of preventing what was originally a nuisance from degenerating into a security threat.

From a ragtag band of a few hundred, the ranks of the Abu Sayyaf have swollen to thousands, using the millions of dollars collected in ransom money to purchase sophisticated arms and speedboats.

In response to the recent demand of angry Malaysian officials that the Philippines should get tough and crack down on its own Muslim citizens, Estrada’s spokesman, Ricardo Puno, could barely conceal his disdain for the Malaysian authorities in Sabah, calling for tighter security involving “the entire Malaysian military, and not just their navy.”

For its part, Malaysia wants a Philippine consulate to be opened in the Sabah capital of Kota Kinabalu to facilitate its measures in dealing with the problem of the illegal Filipino immigrants in the state.

But Manila feels that such a move would be a tacit acknowledgment that Sabah is an integral component of Malaysia, signaling that it is dropping its 37-year-old territorial claim to the state.

The last thing the Philippines wants at this stage, when its military crackdown on the Abu Sayyaf has yet to be a success, is a move which could be interpreted by the international community as a loss of face.

A deeper examination of the issue points to Malaysia’s unhappiness with the Philippines for stifling the aspirations for a separate Muslim state in the country’s southern flank covering eight of 13 provinces where Muslims either make up a large part of the population or a majority.

As a Muslim nation, Malaysia sympathizes with the plight of rebels fighting a Christian-majority nation like the Philippines. But going by the official policy in ASEAN, Malaysia cannot interfere with the domestic politics of a fellow member country.

In turn the Philippines is also unhappy over Malaysia’s sympathy for its Muslim minority, leading to suspicions that Kuala Lumpur may actually be helping them by making Sabah their refuge, including recalcitrant elements.

To complicate the matter, there is little love lost between Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad and Philippine President Estrada, who is a close friend of the jailed former Malaysian deputy premier, Anwar Ibrahim. Much to the chagrin of Mahathir, Estrada had publicly stated his support for Anwar when he dismissed his deputy two years ago. Estrada later feted Anwar’s daughter who spoke on behalf of her father in a visit to Manila.

Bilateral ties presently show no signs of improvement as Philippine troops continue to pursue their Abu Sayyaf quarry in the jungles of Jolo island where the fate of 17 hostages — including three Malaysians — are yet to be known.

The relations stand to become even more strained as large numbers of people flee the fighting for Sabah to swell the already large number of illegal immigrants there.

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