ONE of the biggest questions swirling around the “peace agreement” between the government of President BS Aquino 3rd and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front – the agreement that would be operationalized by the Bangsamoro Basic Law, or its eminently more sensible substitute, the Basic Law for the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region crafted by Sen. Bongbong Marcos – is what hand the government of Malaysia, and specifically Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, had in the negotiations.
Officially, Malaysia served as a moderator for the peace talks, a role that immediately raised some serious questions because of Malaysia’s obvious conflict of interest; first, due to the long-standing and still unresolved dispute with the Philippines over Sabah, and second, because of a long record of direct support from Malaysia to Muslim rebels in Mindanao. Critics of Malaysia’s involvement contend that, at best, its presence pressured our government’s peace negotiators into accepting a ridiculously disadvantageous deal; worse, rumors have been swirling for more than a year that an actual payoff – $750 million is the figure most often cited – was made by the Najib government to the Aquino regime to encourage hasty acceptance of the defective peace agreement and ensure swift passage of the otherwise unacceptable, balkanizing BBL.
At first, those accusations of a payoff seemed like the typical sort of irritated rumor-mongering that always happens in the wake of a serious government misstep, and so far, inquiries into the matter (which are still ongoing) have failed to lend the charge any credence. The apparent lack of evidence, however, is more the result of stonewalling and opacity on the part of agencies and officials in both the Philippine and Malaysian governments than anything else, and given the developments in the growing scandal hounding Najib and his close circle, suspicions that Malaysian involvement in the peace process is a front for something other than just international goodwill have only grown.
Najib’s global mess
For more than a year, PM Najib has been embroiled in a growing financial scandal involving the government-owned investment firm 1 Malaysia Development Berhad, or 1MDB, that he founded in 2009 and staffed with a large number of his close supporters and relatives. 1MDB, whose investment interests are primarily in the real estate and energy sectors, borrowed aggressively but has so far generated little return to show for it, and late last year began defaulting on some of its debts. Then in July this year, a damning report by the Wall Street Journal revealed that nearly $700 million suddenly appeared in Najib’s personal bank accounts from sources unknown. Although the Journal didn’t say it, the implication was clear enough to the Malaysian media and some political figures that the enormous deposit – which Najib steadfastly refused to explain, other than to say the funds were “donated” by unnamed foreign contributors – may have something to do with 1MDB’s multi-billion dollar bad debt.
Najib made heavy-handed attempts to quash any critical questioning of his involvement in the 1MDB mess. He fired the attorney general investigating the scandal, replaced his deputy after the latter openly questioned the issue, and has had newspapers and websites shut down for publishing uncomplimentary news about it. Despite these, the scandal just keeps growing. There are now investigations underway in the United Arab Emirates, Hong Kong, and Singapore in addition to those in Malaysia, and just this past Monday, the New York Times reported that the US Department of Justice has begun an investigation related to property purchased in New York and Los Angeles by Najib allies.
Given the Malaysian government’s and Najib’s close personal interest in the Mindanao peace process – even to the point of his personally attending the signing ceremony in Malacañang – and unceasing new revelations in the 1MDB scandal, the assertion that Malaysia’s motives in being involved in the Philippines’ internal affairs are completely innocent is increasingly hard to swallow. Our government is doing us – and not insignificantly, its own case for our acceptance of the Bangsamoro – a grave disservice by continuing to ignore calls to practice the “transparency” it is fond of talking about but not actually doing. BS Aquino should explain exactly what Malaysia’s interest and activity in the peace process and its outcomes really are.