The ASEAN Fault Lines

by Paul Pryce. Paul Pryce is a Junior Research Fellow at the Atlantic Council of Canada. With degrees in political science from universities on both sides of the pond, he has previously worked in conflict resolution as a Research Fellow with the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly and as an infantryman in the Canadian Forces. His current research interests include African security issues and NATO-Russia relations.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Map of territorial disputes in South China Sea.

Much international attention remains focused on maritime disputes in the South China Sea –- and with good reason. How the current Chinese leadership and their eventual successors exert their claims over the Spratly Islands and other disputed features in the region goes some way toward revealing China’s attitudes on the use of military force elsewhere. But this has meant that serious conflicts among the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member states are often overlooked, contributing to at times unrealistic expectations that ASEAN can serve as a united front to contain Chinese influence.

Most recently, the Sabah conflict has contributed to tensions between Malaysia and the Philippines. As Sabah was originally seized from the Sultanate of Sulu by the British North Borneo Company, and as the territory is home to a significant ethnic Filipino population, the status of this land has been disputed since the recognition of Malaysian independence in 1957. In February-March 2013, tensions rose when some 200 armed militants travelled by boat from the Philippines to Sabah and claimed to be restoring the territory to the rule of Jamalul Kiram III, the apparent successor to the old Sultanate of Sulu. A harsh crackdown by Malaysian forces ensued, repelling the militants. What followed was a series of diplomatic snubs in Malaysian-Filipino relations: the Philippines asked Malaysia to address allegations that Malaysian forces had engaged in atrocities against the ethnic Filipino community in Sabah, which prompted a stern rebuke from Malaysia and a boycott of the 2013 Asian Confederation Youth Boxing Championship, and so on.

In January 2014, the rebels threatened once again to seize Sabah for their “sultanate” but ultimately did not follow through with an attack. Rather than coordinating a response to the threat posed to regional security by the self-styled “Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”, the Malaysian and Philippine governments accused each other of heinous acts. Had the rebels delivered on their 2014 threat, tensions might well have spiraled out of control. Also of concern, ASEAN remained aloof throughout the fighting in Sabah, making no visible effort to mediate the crisis or to discourage conflict between two of its members.

Further complicating the Sabah conflict, Malaysia and Indonesia have advanced competing claims against the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan, which are both located off the coast of Sabah in the Celebes Sea. In 2002, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) awarded the islands to Malaysia, though not before the Philippines applied to intervene in the proceedings on the basis of its historical claim to Northern Borneo. Though Indonesia has honoured the ICJ’s ruling and left Ligitan and Sipadan to Malaysian administration, this three-way dispute speaks to the volatile relationships among ASEAN member states. As recently as 2010, Indonesian protesters have gathered outside the Malaysian Embassy in Jakarta to burn Malaysian flags -– and even attempted to storm the Embassy -– as an expression of animosity.

Cambodian troops make their way through the ancient temple of Preah Vihear in October 2008 following renewed hostilities with Thailand over a long-standing border dispute.

Cambodian troops make their way through the ancient temple of Preah Vihear in October 2008 following renewed hostilities with Thailand over a long-standing border dispute.

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, a century-long territorial dispute persists between Cambodia and Thailand. In June 2008, both sides deployed forces to the area surrounding the 11th century Hindu temple Preah Vihear on the Thai-Cambodian border. A series of skirmishes followed until 2011, in which reportedly 20 Cambodian soldiers, 16 Thai soldiers, and five civilians were killed, while dozens of others on both sides were wounded. In November 2013, the ICJ ruled in favour of Cambodia’s claim and called for the immediate withdrawal of Thai troops, but it rejected Cambodia’s claim of ownership over Phnom Trap, a hill located three kilometres northwest of the temple. The nuance as to who has sovereignty over what in this border region leaves some degree of uncertainty and could always contribute to renewed clashes.

Thailand and Burma have long disputed their border, particularly in relation to the strategically important Three Pagodas Pass. To add to tensions in this area, Burmese forces engaged in frequent skirmishes close to the Thai border with insurgents from the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) from November 2010 until the start of ceasefire talks in January 2012. More recently, the Burmese junta ran afoul of China when the Myanmar Air Force, in its efforts to attack ethnic Chinese Kokang rebels, accidentally struck a sugarcane field on China’s side of the border. The airstrike killed four Chinese citizens and wounded nine others, prompting a warning from Chinese military officials that, should there be further harm to China’s citizens as a result of Burmese actions, “the Chinese military will take resolute measures to protect the safety of Chinese people and their assets.”

Border demarcation between Thailand and Laos is still ongoing, although the Thai-Lao Joint Boundary Commission was established in 1996 to settle ownership of four villages and clarify the 1,810 kilometre boundary between the two countries. Confusion resulting from a set of maps made by French surveyors in 1907 resulted in several skirmishes in 1984. The conflict intensified, eventually resulting in a full-scale border war between Thailand and Laos in 1987-1988. Vietnamese forces intervened in support of Laos, and the conflict is estimated to have resulted in more than a thousand deaths before Laos was left in de facto control of the disputed territory.

It is not all doom and gloom across Southeast Asia, however. Brunei Darussalam and Malaysia were able to resolve their dispute over 483 kilometres of land border through a peaceful exchange of views, with delimitation of the land border initiated in November 2014. It is also worth emphasizing once again that disputes relating to the Cambodian-Thai border and to the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan were resolved not in combat but in the courts. This suggests an emerging norm in Southeast Asia for inter-state conflicts to be resolved peacefully. It has only been those disputes in which non-state actors have become engaged in which violence is employed, such as Burma’s attacks on the Kokang rebels or Malaysia’s efforts to repel the “Sultanate of Sulu”.

Source: Teo Jing Ting, "Never take our peace for granted", Singapore's Ministry of Defence, 05.03.2015.

Source: Teo Jing Ting, “Never take our peace for granted“, Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, 05.03.2015.

It may be that the heightened tensions between Malaysia and the Philippines in relation to the Sabah conflict can be attributed to the aggravating role of non-state actors. The 21st century has seen governments increasingly employ hybrid warfare to advance their interests abroad. Russia’s military actions in Ukraine are a recent example of hybrid warfare in practice, using Special Forces units in conjunction with Russian-trained and equipped militias to advance claims on the ground while a coordinated information warfare campaign seeks to turn public opinion in favour of the Kremlin’s position on the conflict. In Sabah, Malaysian officials were clearly suspicious that the rebels were not in fact acting on their own initiative but were rather quietly backed by the Philippines. The keen interest of Philippine officials in the status of the ethnic Filipino community amid fighting only fed into these suspicions, resembling to some degree an attempt to smear Malaysia’s counter-insurgency operations and cast Malaysia as the oppressive villain in the conflict.

In order to ensure such intra-state conflicts do not become inter-stated clashes, it is necessary for ASEAN to explore means by which to share resources on counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. In the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), China has advanced the idea of “Three Evils“: terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Identifying these as the chief security threats in Central Asia, the SCO has managed to achieve greater cohesion than seen in previous years. Adopting a similar statement of principles and introducing related policy measures to be pursued jointly by ASEAN member states would ensure that Southeast Asia focuses its energies constructively. Its present fragile state leaves ASEAN as something of a paper tiger – threatening to an outside aggressor, but hardly able to withstand an actual challenge from China.

This entry was posted in English, General Knowledge, Indonesia, Paul Pryce, Security Policy.

4 Responses to The ASEAN Fault Lines

  1. I am Sabahan so I’d like to clarify what happened with Sabah with regards to Sulu in the past.

    Interior Sabah was never ruled by anyone, ever, in an imperial fashion. Coastal areas were part of the kinship structure that underpinned the Sultanates of Sulu and Brunei, but instead of sharp divides between their two spheres of influence there was something closer to a gradual transition, with powerful states like Marudu (located half way between the two of the two sultanates) having close family ties to both Brunei AND Sulu.

    The Austrian representative to Hong Kong secured a lease to Sabah from Brunei in the 1800s but he couldn’t convince his Government it was a worthwhile colony and it was sold to a group of American business-men who founded a colony which lasted for some years and lives on today as the town of Kimanis. After the death of one of the Americans (his grave is still in Sabah) the colony was sold to the British North Borneo company who, to better secure their lease, also took out a lease with Sulu since the two sultanates had traditionally overlapping claims. Since then a payment has been made every year to the Sultan of Sulu for the lease. The British certainly didn’t seize the territory from Sulu, they seized it from its local inhabitants who were never mostly actually beholden to Sulu in the first place.

    Also, as a further note, there is no evidence that the Sultan ever had the slightest expectation he would actually get Sabah. With 200 men he wasn’t a fool. His motivations were twofold: First, he aimed to get Malaysia to increase his yearly allowance. Second, and actually much more importantly, he wanted to remind everyone he is relevant. The Moro National Islamic Front has managed to secure a peace deal with the Philippine regime. This left the Moro National Front (the group that used to be the most prominent), the Abu Sayaf, and the Sultan himself, out in the cold as the Islamic Front emerged as the premier representative of the Moro peoples in the Philippines.

    The Sultan hoped to remind everyone he was important, powerful and needed to be included in any road to reconciliation. The fact that the Moro National Front threw their lot in with him during the crisis demonstrates their similar desire to be taken more seriously, as do Abu Sayaf attacks in the follow months (they are also an indication that, as happens every few years, the Abu Sayaf were broke).

    • Butch Tan says:


      Well written take on the Sabah story. Back in the 70s I made an acquaintance of one of the Sultan of Sulu’s Court – such as it was. He told me that the State Minister for may years(?) Tun Mustafa was actually a Jolo-anon, in effect a Filipino.

      Tun Mustafa, he said, was responsible for the – at first – seasonal influx of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi residents during the election period. On arrival they would be issued identity cards and made to vote (in exchange for something, I suppose) in favor of Mustapha and his party. At that time, according to the Sulu court official, the voting population of Sabah was largely Kadazan. The Sulu / Tawi-Tawi “visitors” became the demographic swing vote.

      Years later a lot of these seasonal visitors decided to remain in Sabah becoming the de facto majority. The ethnic Tausug population are the 900 lb. gorilla of Sabah politics.

      That’s the story I was told, at least.

      It’s really complicated.

      Thank you!

  2. J.Courtland says:

    I enjoyed this article!!

  3. Pingback: Khaan Quest and Mongolia: Molding a Mediator? |

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