If Malaysia is clumsy about handling the Sabah standoff, it will have the same problem the Philippine government had when it fought a Muslim rebellion in the South in the 1970s up to the 1980s.
Malaysia is in a no-win situation as a result of the standoff in Sabah.
If it uses deadly force on a small group of armed Filipino Muslims now holed up in the village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah, members of the fiercest of Philippine Moro tribe, the Tausogs of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi, will retaliate.
If, on the other hand, Malaysia compromises with the armed group purportedly belonging to the Sultanate of Sulu, it will be perceived as a weakling by its neighbors.
Which will Malaysia choose, fighting a rebellion in the Sabah state or swallowing its pride and compromise with the Sultanate of Sulu?
Better to be perceived as a weakling rather than have a bloody civil war in Sabah.
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There is no record of the number of Filipinos, mostly Tausogs, in Sabah.
But a friend of mine who used to be in the Philippine military intelligence estimates that one-third of the population in the Malaysian state is Tausog.
Many of the people in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi have relatives in Sabah, which is just one hour by speedboat from Simunul in Tawi-Tawi.
If the Tausogs in Sabah rise up in revolt against the Malaysian government, their relatives in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi will go to Sabah and fight with them.
To the Tausogs, the claim of the group purporting to represent the Sultanate of Sulu that Sabah belongs to the sultanate is legitimate.
The Sulu Sultanate, long dormant and somewhat forgotten because of the war waged by the Tausog-led MNLF against the government, is still revered by Moros in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Tausogs respect the Sultan of Sulu in much the same way Malaysians pay homage to their royal family.
If harm is done to Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram, who ordered the Mudah Agbimuddin to enter Sabah, his fellow Tausogs in Sabah and in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi will take up arms against the Malaysian government.
Filipino Muslims declare a rido or vendetta against people who harm their relatives.
The Rido has set off feuds between families or clans that last for decades.
Most of the Tausogs in Sabah have relatives in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi who are ready to take revenge if harm is done to Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram and his armed followers in Lahad Datu town.
My source in Sulu said that even before the landing of 200 men in Lahad Datu last week, the Sultanate had already sent armed men in small groups to Sabah to escape notice from authorities. The armed groups are being coddled by Tausogs in the Malaysian state.
The ocean border between Sabah and the Philippines is porous or easily penetrated.
Most of the tens of thousands of Filipino illegal immigrants in Sabah entered through this porous border.
It’s very easy for armed Tausogs to enter Sabah and wage a guerrilla war against the Malaysian government should hostilities break out between the Sultanate group and Malaysian police.
Tausogs love to fight and look for reasons to pick a fight.
If Malaysia assumes a violent stance against the Sulu Sultanate group, the Tausogs will have a reason to fight them.
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When the government was fighting the MNLF in the 1970s through the 1980s, Malaysia was secretly supporting the rebellion in the South.
Weapons coming from Libya and other Middle East countries passed through Malaysia on their way to the MNLF.