By Kee Thuan Chye
Malaysians cannot but be shocked by what is happening in Sabah. And although our security forces are now hunting the remaining Sulu Sultanate intruders after having bombarded them in Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu, the crisis is far from over.
Meanwhile, questions abound in the minds of the lay public.
How did the intruders sneak into Lahad Datu from Feb 9 onwards, more than three weeks ago? There were reportedly as many as 300 of them, some heavily armed. How did that escape detection? Our Special Branch is highly regarded as being among the best intelligence units in the world. Did it not get wind of this incursion early enough?
Once the intruders had entered Lahad Datu, and after they had openly declared their intentions for intruding – which was to reclaim the area as their ancestral homeland – why did the Malaysian Government not react quickly enough to get them out?
A claim like that is a serious one and if it was not immediately nipped in the bud could lead to bigger implications. As it has turned out, these implications are beginning to emerge.
And yet, for two weeks, the Government humoured the intruders by engaging in, so the public was told by Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, diplomatic negotiations. Political commentators called it giving them kid gloves’ treatment.
Was it because the Government feared taking stronger action against these intruders who are Tausugs and closely related to the Suluks, who came from the Philippines and are now settled in Sabah by the thousands as Malaysian citizens, might cause the latter to vote against the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) at the upcoming general election? And perhaps not only the Suluks but also other Filipinos of other descent who have also become citizens?
For the Government’s hesitancy in dealing forcefully with the intruders, the situation eventually escalated into skirmishes between them and our police that led to the loss of eight Malaysian lives. Why did the Government allow this to come to pass? Surely, it must have been savvy enough to realise from the start that the situation could turn nasty if nothing was done fast?
Malaysians also wondered why the Home Ministry, hence the police instead of the army, was charged with handling the crisis – even when bullets started to fly and our people were killed. If the army had been called sooner, might the intruders not have been ejected expeditiously – and less messily? The intruders were hopelessly outnumbered and our army has superior firepower. Threatening to decimate them might have been enough to make them surrender, might it not?
As it is now, after the bombing at Kampung Tanduo, there are still intruders at large and our security forces have to go after them. Who knows what nastiness might still transpire as the hunt goes on?
Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office Nazri Aziz has come out to explain that the police were the better option to handle the situation because it was an intrusion, not a war, but when it comes to the safety of the residents of Lahad Datu and the surrounding areas, is there cause for such technicalities?
What will the genuine Sabahans now make of all this mess? Would it matter to them if it was an intrusion or a war? Those who have had to flee their villages out of fear would only know that their safety and security was not protected by the Government. Would they still support the ruling coalition that has failed them in this regard? What about genuine Sabahans living in other parts of the state? Would they still have faith in the ruling coalition?
And what about Malaysians in general?
For the first two weeks of the crisis, they were mystified as to why there was so much secrecy surrounding the so-called negotiations between the Government and the intruders. Despite the fear that had gripped the villagers in the affected area and the anxiety of Malaysians at large wondering if something dire was emerging from the situation, the Home Ministry gave out little information.
Three Al Jazeera journalists covering the developing story were detained near Kampung Tanduo on Feb 20 and held for police questioning for six hours. They managed to report that about 100 villagers had been made homeless from fleeing for their safety.
Meanwhile, with hardly any reliable reports coming out because of the Government blackout, all sorts of rumours and theories emerged.
Even BN and the Opposition Pakatan Rakyat took advantage of the confusion by politicising the issue. They accused each other of aiding and abetting the intruders to stage the crisis in order to help their cause for the upcoming general election. This was the most sickening development for the Malaysian electorate that has already become weary of the heavy politicking in the last two years, and it became even more sickening when the guns started blazing and Malaysians died.
PKR Vice-President Tian Chua came off badly for his ill-timed allegation that Umno conspired in staging a “sandiwara” in order to divert attention from the issue of the Government’s granting of identity cards to illegal immigrants, and also to frighten the people.
From the other side came reports linking the intruders to the Opposition. Umno-owned newspaper Utusan Malaysia quoted a report from a Philippine news portal that said a top Opposition leader in Sabah close to Pakatan chief Anwar Ibrahim had met with the intruders last November and offered them support.
Utusan Malaysia also cited a purported claim by The Manila Times that the intrusion had to do with a promise made by the Opposition to grant Sabah autonomy if it came to power. However, how such autonomy would be of value to the Sulu Sultanate in order to prompt the latter to take the current intrusion course demands some logical explanation.
Prime Minister Najib Razak has since seized on these allegations to make political capital out of them. Even as the sovereignty of Sabah is being threatened and the safety of Sabahans is being compromised, he is proving to be a political opportunist. He has lambasted Tian Chua for the latter’s remark and ordered an investigation into the reports about the Pakatan-intruders link so as to make the Opposition look bad and divert attention from his own government’s handling of the crisis.
Well might he do this, and if evidence is found which unequivocally establishes that Pakatan was indeed involved in the plot, the Opposition coalition would be guilty of treason. There’s no doubt about that.
But, on the other hand, Najib should also acknowledge that in the handling of the crisis, the Government has to accept full responsibility. It is responsible for the deaths of the eight policemen. It is responsible for the breach in security and resulting threat to the safety of Sabahans. For these, it cannot blame anyone else.
Furthermore, the ultimate questions still have to be answered: How did the intruders get into Sabah undetected? Why did the Government take so long to resolve the issue? Why did it put the lives of the security forces at risk? More importantly, why did it put the safety and security of Sabahans at risk?
These are questions the Government has to answer. If it doesn’t do so convincingly, it may be seen to have failed the people. And that could be bad for its election prospects.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, and the latest volume, Ask for No Bullshit, Get Some More!