KOTA KINABALU: Former foreign minister Anifah Aman has welcomed news of the landmark referendum in Mindanao in southern Philippines, saying peace and stability in the region will bode well for Sabah as well.
He told FMT this had been at the forefront of discussions at the regional level during his time as the country’s foreign affairs head.
“This is what we’ve been fighting for before,” he said, referring to the vote for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
“It is a matter close to my heart. If there is peace in Mindanao, there will be few people from the region coming to Sabah.”
He added that stability in the area would encourage investors from Malaysia to consider setting up business in Mindanao.
“As a Sabahan, I have vested interest in this and I fully agree with the development,” he said.
Filipinos in southern Mindanao voted in favour of BARMM last month, boosting hopes for peace in one of Asia’s most conflict-torn regions.
Anifah said Malaysia had brokered peace talks as a third-party facilitator for the Southern Philippines Peace Process since 2001.
This paved the way for the signing of an agreement on the Bangsamoro between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2014.
“During my time (as foreign minister), the tripartite cooperation between Malaysia, the Philippines and Indonesia, also addressed matters on security, among others,” Anifah added.
“With autonomy now, those efforts can be stepped up. Of course, we can’t expect things to develop overnight, but the intention for change is there and this is good for us.”
He said stability in the region would open up a wealth of possibilities, particularly regarding the economy and job opportunities.
“It is just like in Indonesia previously, when they re-opened vast tracks of plantations. Indonesian workers in Malaysia went home to seek employment there,” he said.
Ayesah Uy Abubakar, a senior lecturer in international relations at Universiti Malaysia Sabah, agreed that BARMM would have a positive effect on Sabah but warned that this would take time, perhaps up to five years.
“There should be stability in the region after the 2022 election,” she said. “All parliamentary seats will be contested – not only the Moro Islamic Liberation Front but also current politicians and other sectoral groups.
“As early as mid-February, I think we should see the establishment of the Bangsamoro Transition Authority (BTA) as a temporary caretaker government.”
It also remains to be seen whether BARMM can help curtail cross-border kidnappings and piracy in Sabah, she said.
“There is no guarantee of this yet, especially with the recent bombings and pursuit of non-state actor groups in Sulu and Zamboanga.”
Overall, though, she expects security and the stability of the Bangsamoro to be on BTA’s top agenda.
“There will be more cooperation between the national and regional governments to secure the peace and order situation in the whole region, including its borders,” she added.
She agreed that BARMM would increase economic opportunities but cautioned that this, too, would take time.