Today let me step back from historical and legal analysis of the Sabah crisis and share with you a more personal take on the matter. It has to do with the Asian concept of "loss of face" and "martabat." At the end of the day, the personal stakes may be what is driving the crisis.


What is "martabat?" Martabat is a Malay term that one hears often used by the Moro peoples of Mindanao -- the Tausug, Sama, Yakan, Maguindanao, Maranao, Iranun. Among the Moro, it means honor and dignity. For the Tausugs of Sulu, these values define us. No matter if we are poor or powerless, we have been taught from childhood to value our martabat. One’s rank in the community is tied to honor.


It is the duty of each member of the clan not to bring dishonor or shame to himself/herself as this also dishonors his or her family and clan. Dishonor can be due to rape, murder, wrongful accusations of dishonesty, theft, and duplicity -- acts that reduces the public perception of the individual (and therefore his or her clan). If the individual is indeed guilty, then the family must bear the shame. If not, honor must be reclaimed. Shame can also be due to a very public loss -- such as surrender in battle.


"Rido" or clan wars are waged over the loss of martabat and the need to "save face." If shame or dishonor tarnishes the clan’s reputation or standing in the community, it must be avenged to recover martabat. Bloody rido have been waged between clans for several generations over the loss of martabat. A hundred years ago, if I was wrongfully and publicly shamed, perhaps accused of dishonesty and fraud, my family would be honor-bound to seek out those who had besmirched our reputation and avenge the dishonor brought on the Rasul name. (Today, we who follow the rule of law have other avenues to reclaim honor. Unfortunately, in Muslim Mindanao, the many who do not believe there is justice in the implementation of the rule of law turn to rido.)


The whole world is paying attention to the siege in Lahad Datu where the superior armed forces of Malaysia have cornered the men of the Sulu Royal Army (SRA), the latter armed with vintage firearms and knives. The SRA is led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, who is the younger brother and Crown Prince of Sulu Sultan Jamalul III. Sultan Jamalul has stated that the Raja Muda, against his advice, crossed over to Sabah to return to his "homeland" and reclaim Sabah. To convince the Raja Muda and the SRA to withdraw and return to the Philippines, the Sultan wanted assurance from the Philippine government that the historic and legal claim of the Sultanate over Sabah would be pursued. He wanted a dialogue with no less than President Benigno Simeon Aquino III.


As of today, 70 have been killed -- most of them members and supporters of the SRA. Over four weeks have passed and the situation has progressed from a low-level threat to a community into an international incident, which has required the intervention of the United Nations Secretary-General. Sec-Gen Ban Ki Moon last week called for a ceasefire. Jamalul Kiram III has accepted the call but Malaysia refuses.


What is at stake?

The Philippine government would want this crisis resolved expeditiously as it impacts negatively on the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, successfully facilitated by Malaysia. Further, votes for the administration candidates in the May elections are at stake. In Muslim Mindanao, the anti-Muslim charges against DILG Secretary Mar Roxas and LP Campaign Manager Frank Drilon have resurfaced, particularly after statements given by Secretary Roxas perceived to be critical of the Tausugs ("hard-headed") and the Philippine claim on Sabah ("hopeless cause"). Even non-Muslim Filipinos have become critical of the government’s handling of the situation. The opposition candidates, seizing the opportunity, have had a field day demanding that government protect the rights and lives of its citizens. This may have negative consequences on the administration’s senatorial candidates.


Wisely, the Department of Foreign Affairs has finally come out with a statement on March 10, expressing "grave concern" on the "alleged rounding up of community members of Suluk/Tausug descent in Sabah and the "alleged violations of human rights", calling on the Malaysian Government to "give humane treatment to the Filipinos under their custody."


As for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, media reports have focused on the misery of residents of Tawi-Tawi due to the impact of the Sabah blockade which has prevented the entry of cheap Malaysian goods (smuggled gas, rice and other food items). The influx of refugees and deportees now unable to provide remittances to their families has also added to the tribulations faced by Tawi-Tawi residents, thousands of mouths to feed when supplies are running low.


For Malaysia, the publicized intrusion of poorly armed men into Lahad Datu is a threat to their internal security, protected by a powerfully armed force and the implementation of their Security Offences (Special Measures) Act of 2012 or SOSMA. (SOSMA replaced the Internal Security Act of 1960, criticized for violating human rights. Unfortunately, SOSMA has been also criticized for its lack of protection of fundamental human rights.) The Malaysian government similarly would not want to prolong this crisis for multiple reasons -- economic, security, political. The government, led by the Barisan Nasional, needs to save face, especially as their elections loom. Before the crisis, Malaysian political analysts had noted that the BN was losing popularity. The crisis could tip the balance in favor of the opposition, resulting to BN losing its control over government after 50 years in power.


For the Sultanate of Sulu and Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, the lives of his brother and over a hundred men are at stake as well as the Sultanate’s claim on Sabah.


What about the personal stakes? Here we have three macho leaders, each with a strong sense of martabat, which, if tarnished, would have dire consequences on their standing, followers and communities.


Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak probably believes that he and his party, the Barisan Nasional/United Malay Nationalist Organization (UMNO) will lose face if he shows weakness in dealing with this situation. That loss of martabat will have impact in the forthcoming Malaysian elections. President Benigno Simeon Aquino III loses credibility and popularity, if the siege is not ended on his terms. The loss of credibility will also translate to loss of votes for his candidates in the elections this May. For Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, apart from the lives of his kin and followers, his leadership as Sultan is at stake. Martabat dictates that when we are oppressed, we wage war to the last man standing -- unless an honorable way out is found. Of the three leaders, Sultan Jamalul has the most to lose personally. The Tausugs, who are now captivated by and supportive of his actions, will be unforgiving of an act of unconditional surrender.


So how do we get out of this quagmire, surrounded by all kinds of political land mines? The most likely scenario is for the total defeat of the SRA. However, this situation has the direst consequences. The best scenario is to have a ceasefire and to dialogue. Unfortunately, that seems to be most unlikely as of today.


The total annihilation/defeat of the forces would be a temporary victory for Malaysia (but unfortunately not a victory for the Philippine government). Its consequences will be felt in the near future, with drastic impact to the region’s stability and security. The Malaysian and Philippine governments should take a long-term view and prevent dousing the fire with gasoline, allowing radicalization to spread in a state unused to armed conflict.


Years ago, there was already a threat -- although a weak one -- of an Islamic state to be created in the region. There is a real possibility that present germ of Sabah autonomy/independence movement could be nurtured and mushroom overnight into a rebellion, as what happened in Muslim Mindanao after martial law was implemented in the ’70s. Sabah might be the nucleus of an independent Islamic state, even if that possibility is not supported by majority of Sabahans.


Even with a complete blockade of Sabah, the possibility of MNLF, MILF, ASG and other armed troops entering Sabah is possible through Indonesia and then overland to Sabah.


The ceasefire scenario is what most people outside Malaysia would want to see. However, it is the least likely of the possible scenarios. Malaysia has disregarded and rejected UN Sec-Gen Ban Ki Moon’s call for ceasefire and is adamant that ceasefire would only happen if the SRA forces surrender unconditionally. According to the news, the Philippine government, in a statement given by the Department of Foreign Affairs, stressed: "Our aim has not changed. We will explore all possibilities to save lives and avoid bloodshed. The suggestion of a unilateral ceasefire (appears) to be one of the options."


The Tausugs led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin will not surrender unconditionally, as "surrender" is not part of their culture.


However, an "honorable" surrender by the SRA might be possible if Malaysia would soften their stance and agree to a ceasefire.


Amina Rasul is the president of Philippine Council for Islam and Democracy. Surviel is her column in BusinessWorld. Follow her on Twitter @aminarasul.