Riwanto Tirtosudarmo, Jakarta | Opinion |

The recent flare-up in Lahad of Sabah, involving the Malaysian security apparatus and an armed group claiming to represent the Sulu Sultanate, reflects the repeated problem of unfinished nation-state building in Southeast Asia.The incident, triggered by the leading of self-proclaimed followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the descendent of the Sulu sultan, needs to be seen in a wider context of post colonial history especially on the fault lines of state boundaries and ethnicity.

The process of nation building in this religion is always related to the problem of maintaining sustainable development in multiethnic societies. Ethnic pluralism is not only a social reality inherited from history but it continues play a part in the making of current and future societies in Southeast Asia.I his book Ethnic Politics (1994) Esman says ethnic pluralism can be traced to three factors. First is conquest and annexation, when people are defeated and brought under the rule of the victor. Second is the process of western colonization and de-colonization, which assembled and established adminstrative boundaries for the convience of colonial power.

People who had mutual affinity were often split into two or more states governed by different colonial matters. Third is population movement as people cross political boundaries in search of economic opportunities or religious and political freedom.

Borrowing Esman’s arguments to explain ethnic pluralism in Southeast Asia, most state in Southeast ASia are a result of a combination of the second and the third factors.

Most states in Southeast Asia, particularly Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines, represent very well on the one hand the process of decolonization that split the region based on agreements between their former colonial masters, and on the other hand the continuing movement of people across the official nation-state’s boundaries.

The crafting od state’s boundaries by the colonial masters without any conset from the indigenous population is obviously the source of political contention as the case of Lahat Datu shows. The claim by the followers of Sulu Sultanante looks trivial in the eyes of current development but could precipitate serious problems if not solved wisely by the Malaysian and Philippine governments.

The incident cannot be isolated from the wider problems of domestic politics both in the Philippines and malaysia. In the case of the Philippines, the protracted conflict between the government and MNLF rebel group could have a connection with the remnants of the Sulu Sultanate who feel marginalized. The weakening of Malay-based political party UMNO could also inspire the non_malay groups, such as indigenous people, to express their long grievance against the Malay government.

Sabah is the youngest state in the Malaysian Federation carefully nurtures by the British Imperial govrenment in the mid-1950s. The existence of various group of people who historically and culturally do not belong to the Malays has proved to be a contonuing source of ethnic contention in Sabah.

The geographic location of Sabah has attracted mifrant groups from different ethnic and historical backgrounds, particularly from Indonesia adn the Philippines. The arrival of Indonesian workers employed in palm oil plantations near the conflict zone clearly shows the nature of Sabah as a multiethnic society. Plantation are one of Sabah’s major sources or revenue that has attracted migrant workers from neighboring countries.

Another important feature of Sabah as commonly to other parts of Souteast Asia is its porous border. People move in and out by land between Sabah and West Kalimantan, or by sea between Sabah and Nunukan Island in East Kalimantan and Tawi-tawi and Sulu Islands as well southern part of Mindanao in the Philippines, which used to belong to the Sulu Sultanate before the British Borneo Company controlled the region.

Nation-state building and modernization bring them a rise in ethnic conflict as different groups begin competing under larger economic and political systems, in which, at any given time, the groups differ in numbers and control of resources. In such a new political circumstances, people are forced to adjust themselves to new social relationship and identify themselves as members of larger groups based on attributes they carry around, namely language, historical background, race or religion.

Ethnicity in a broader sense becomes a very important cultural identification which is played out within the context of power relations and the new politics of identify. This tendency may be exacerbated by the elites who utilize the phenomenon to satisfy their personal interests who may or may not concide with the interests of the group as a whole. in this complex situation the demography of ethnicity has been manipulated to serve the powerful elites’ political and economic interests.

The Malaysian, or the Philippine, security authorities may suppress the uprising of the Sulu group. But unless the root of the problem, the unfinished nation-state building process both in Malaysia and the Philippines, remains unresolved the conflict will emerge as a latent security threat to the two countries and ASEAN alike.

Sumber : The Jakarta Post, Thursday March 14th 2013