Malaysian Territories: Security and Sovereignty

EDITORIAL, 24 Nov 2014

#351 | Johan Galtung

Kuala Lumpur

Malaysia has recently experienced maximum insecurity for two extra-territorial sovereign territories: Malaysian Airlines flights MH370 to Beijing and MH17 from Amsterdam. Flights are subject to air traffic rules, but sovereignty was deeply insulted for MH17–possibly also for MH370–and so was the security of the close to 600 on board: dead, possibly killed. The finding so far is that MH17 was hit by “numerous high energy objects”, which–looking at the photos of the cabin wall–aka “machine gun fire”; rather than “hit by a BUK rocket”. MH370: a race to locate the wreckage, by submarines, surface vessels; between China to find, and Australia to destroy, any evidence of crimes?

Intentional destruction of planes entails identification of the perpetrators whoever they are; arraigning them into court and if found guilty punishing them for mass murder. Taking place in international space both should be international, like the International Civil Aviation Organization and the ICC-International Criminal Court. For MH17 Malaysia used Netherlands for the investigation and may prefer Malaysia for the adjudication; two unfortunate decisions. We are dealing with one, possibly two, cases of aggression on civilian planes, themselves incapable of aggression; hence no case for self-defense. The cases are clearly criminal.

So much for space. Conventional borders are on land, sea (EEZ-Exclusive Economic Zone aka Economic Exclusion Zone, between EEZs) and in the air; traditionally defended by land, sea, air military forces against insults by other states, and by police for insults by individuals such as smuggling, drugs, kidnapping, illegal immigration and fishing. The borders are territorial, and the military is focused on national territory. Check out: are there problems anywhere, even conflicts, disputed claims? How will they evolve? Diagnosis, prognosis, and if needed, therapy; standard peace research approaches.

Peninsular Malaysia borders on Thailand to the north and across narrow straits on Singapore and Indonesia to the south. Illegal crossings occur in the south but represent no serious threat.

The border to Thailand, however, is problematic, with the three southern provinces of Thailand being 85% Muslim-Malay. Together with the northern province of Malaysia, Kelantan, they were the Pattani Sultanate till the conquest by Thailand in 1785. The Thai rule was then sealed by the English in the Anglo-Siamese treaty of 1909.

Colonial, not sustainable. The Thai military will not solve this “within one year”. Prognosis: from bad to worse. From the reasons for detaching the three provinces from Thailand, however, it does not follow that they belong to Malay-Muslim Malaysia. That is for the people to decide; and they may opt for an independent Pattani Darussalam. Better than continued terrorism and Thai state terrorism.

Singapore. A guess, a prognosis: within 20-25 years, reunited with Malaysia. Much is changing. Malaysia is rich, getting richer; Singapore is competing with other city-states in finance economy and has no land base. Reunion would expose Malaysia to the Chinese Penang-Singapore pincer, but by that time Malaysia may have become better integrated.

Eastern Malaysia. The Malaysia-Indonesia Sarawak-Sabah border is drawn by colonial powers, similar to Africa. They might be made irrelevant rather than changed, with some shared territory and open borders, in a Malaysian-Indonesian Community, MIC; modeled on the 1950 French-German beginning of the European Community, policing what should be policed. Much of the same can be said about the Sabah-Philippine relation with two island bridges; once an archipelago of sultanates from Pattani-Aceh via islands to Mindanao. That archipelago could be given structural presence within an integrating community of states.

Disputed sea territory: Mahathir Mohammed showed the way with the joint Malaysia-Thai zone, and 50-50 sharing of ocean (floor) revenue.

Mediation-negotiation-creativity; by ASEAN-Association of Southeast Asian Nations, with 10 countries: 3 Muslim, 5 Buddhist, 1 Catholic, 1 Chinese; 2 sultanates, 2 kingdoms, 6 republics–a range of human experience–and no debilitating veto power.

From the sea and the air: The real threats to Malaysia are two big powers, USA and China, which might invade Malaysia to preempt the other. Like the war between England and Japan over Malaysia in 1941-45 or between England and Germany over little Norway in 1940. How to handle that?

Symmetrically. Good relations with both. Military assets like ports, airports: neither to one nor to the other; any asymmetry can be seized upon by the other, as mentioned. Preferably both-and; give them a joint base, a port for cooperating in supervising the old silk road from Eastern China to Eastern Africa, keeping it open, pirate-free.

Internal insecurity. Basic faultlines: nation and class, both in Malaysia. A thin European-Christian layer; over a political Malay-Muslim Sultan federation with some democracy (a major threat is TPP-Trans-Pacific Partnership) and Chinese economic dominance; on top of a Tamil-Hindu underclass; and all four on top of the Orang Asli-Naturists. Positive discrimination of the Bumiputera, Malays, economically was a success–no Indonesian 1965-6 disaster but has now gone too far with Malay political dominance and islamization. Malaysia could integrate all, the Portuguese-Dutch-English, Malay-Muslim, Chinese, Tamil-Hindu, indigenous into a cultural pentagon reaching out in all directions and become Asia’s Switzerland.

The Malaysian Army. Is it needed? There are 26 countries without armies, and none of them were ever attacked. Armies are there to show by fight that might is right; no fight, no might can be proven right.

A strong police, yes. But, if disarmament goes too far, transarm, scrap provocative arms that can be used for attack, go for defensive defense. Mark borders with short range arms, militias for inner space and a population versed in non-military defense, non-cooperation and civil disobedience when Malaysia is better integrated.

To summarize: if Malaysia has been the victim of aggression, the answer is criminalization. For other problems the answer is removing war causes, solving underlying conflicts, and building peace.


Johan Galtung, a professor of peace studies, dr hc mult, is rector of the TRANSCEND Peace University-TPU. He is author of over 150 books on peace and related issues, including ‘50 Years-100 Peace and Conflict Perspectives,’ published by the TRANSCEND University Press-TUP.

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Nov 2014.

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