Sarawak pro-sovereignty movement gains momentum

11% of residents sign petition for full internal autonomy within Malaysia · 85% of citizens polled say they want further self-government · Opposition, government leaders say full internal autonomy is their goal

85% of Sarawak citizens want the territory to be granted enlarged autonomy within Malaysia, and 54% believe the Malaysian government is "unfairly" treating the country, recent poll data show. The figures came to be known weeks after pro-sovereignty platform Sarawak 4 Sarawakians (S4S) announced it had collected 300,000 signatures calling for the restoration of Sarawak's full internal autonomy.

According to the survey, support for autonomy exists across all three main communities that make up the Sarawakian society: the Chinese (95% of support), the Bumiputera (native) Muslims (79%), and the non-Muslim Bumiputera (79%). Support to S4S platform is higher among the Chinese and the non-Muslim Bumiputera, while it is lower among Bumiputera Muslims. The latter group identifies itself more with mainland Malays than the other two groups do.

The S4S-led pro-sovereignty movement has managed to include the devolution of powers as one of the main issues in Sarawak's political debate, just in a year that Sarawakians will be called to the polls to renew their Parliament.

Given the strength of the pro-sovereignty movement, both the chief minister of Sarawak Tan Sri Adenan Satem and the leader of the opposition Baru Bian have said their goal too is full internal autonomy of Sarawak in Malaysia.

Adenan and the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, agreed in 2015 the devolution of a first package of powers to Sarawak. But decisions on constitutional changes that would allow Sarawak to be devolved further areas of self-government were postponed.

Sarawak opposition parties argue Adenan is not exerting enough pressure on Najib -both men belong to the same party, Barisan Nasional- on devolution demands.

Getting back the 1963 agreement

A former British colony, Sarawak established the Federation of Malaysia along Sabah, Malaya and Singapore in 1963. The founding agreement provided for a wide autonomy both for Sabah and Sarawak, the only two territories located on the island of Borneo, the rest the country being on the mainland.

But in practice, Malaysia currently recognizes limited autonomy to both Borneo's constituent countries. The Sarawak pro-sovereignty movement has gained momentum over the last years under the argument that it would just be fair to get back the terms of the 1963 agreement in order to achieve home rule.

According to the S4S platform, Malaysia should only retain powers over foreign affairs, defense and internal security, all remaining powers being devolved to the government of Sarawak. Demands for increased autonomy are also growing in neighbouring Sabah.