Southern Philippines group with ancient claim to part of Borneo goes to war across the Sulu Sea
By Jonathan Manthorpe, Vancouver Sun columnist March 7, 2013
Protesters holds posters of Filipino Sultan Jamalul Kiram III during a protest outside the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on March 7. At least 28 people, including eight Malaysian policemen, have died in shootouts this past week between security forces and the Filipino group and their suspected allies led by a brother of Jamalul Kiram III, in Malaysia’s Sabah state. Photograph by: Vincent Thian , AP
If it were not for the bloodshed, the invasion of Malaysia’s portion of the island of Borneo by the rag-tag “Royal Army of Sulu” intent on re-establishing a 600-year-old Muslim sultanate would be pure comic opera.
But at least 60 people have been killed since the army of about 200 invaded Malaysia’s province of Sabah from the southern islands of the neighbouring Philippines a month ago.
And although this story has its roots in the heady history of Southeast Asia and the arbitrary acts of British colonial rulers, its implications are profound.
The invasion appears to be a direct consequence of last November’s agreement, mediated by Malaysia, to end the 44-year war between Muslim Moro separatists living in the Philippines southern islands and the Manila government.
That agreement could easily be the first victim of the invasion as the various Moro guerrilla groups abandon hopes of autonomy within the predominantly Christian Philippines and return to war.
And because of an apparently duplicitous role played by the Malaysian arbitrators in the Philippines agreement, another insurrection about to be moderated by the Kuala Lumpur government, this one by Malay Muslims in Thailand’s three southern provinces, could also collapse.
More generally, the Sabah invasion is a reminder that a multitude of rival territorial claims remain unresolved in the region.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) was formed in 1967 with the express purpose of smothering territorial claims left over from the colonial period and earlier.
But although ASEAN now includes all 10 countries in the region, and has spurred significant economic integration, administrative cooperation and even envisages developing into an Asian version of the European Community, these old claims have extraordinary tenacity and remain emotionally highly charged.
The “Royal Army” of Jamalul Kiram III, who is 74 and the current Sultan of Sulu, a territory which historically included northern Borneo and the islands in the Sulu Sea between Borneo and the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, invaded Sabah by boat from the Philippines on Feb. 12.
A few days later one group ambushed a patrol of Malaysian policemen, killing six. Since then Malaysia has deployed overwhelming military might, including air force attacks and the fielding of seven army divisions, to root out the raiders. At least 52 members of Kiram’s army have been killed.
The Malaysians have rejected a ceasefire offer from the invaders’ leader, apparently a brother of Sultan Kiram, and are vowing to finish the job.
The story starts in 1878 when the then Sultan of Sulu leased the eastern part of Sabah to the British North Borneo Company, who paid him an annual rent.
All went well until 1963 when the British decided to include Sabah in newly independent Malaysia instead of returning it to the Philippines and the Sultan of Sulu.
But one thing that has kept the dispute alive is that Malaysia has honoured the lease signed by the British company over 130 years ago and continued to pay Sultan Kiram $1,500 annual rent for Sabah.
It was outrage in the 1960s among the Muslim ethnic Moros of the southern Philippines at the failure of the Manila government to confront the British and Malaysia over Sabah that led to the uprising whose ending is now in doubt.
Indeed, the whole Muslim uprising in the Philippines has its root in the Sabah issue. The dispute was given added potency in 1967 when Philippines forces massacred 150 Moro fighters who were preparing to invade Sabah.
The armed struggle against Manila was started by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) the following year, but in 1977 the group split and the rival Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was formed.
It is the MILF that signed the Malaysia-brokered Framework Agreement with Manila in November last year.
The MNLF, which has about 15,000 fighters and to which Sultan Kiram is most closely linked, opposes the agreement. So do two other armed groups in the southern Philippines, the al-Qaida-linked Abu Sayyaf and the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters.
Sultan Kiram has complained loudly that he was excluded from the talks leading up to the agreement and has criticized the Manila administration of President Begnigno Aquino for not supporting his claim to Sabah.
However, what led Kiram immediately after the framework agreement was signed to call on his followers to invade Sabah was a claim that in the background to the talks, Malaysia and the Philippines made a secret agreement.
That agreement, according to local press reports, is that Manila said it would set aside the historic claim to Sabah and would establish a consulate in the Malaysian province, signifying acceptance of Malaysian sovereignty. Malaysia, meanwhile, will stop the annual $1,500 lease payment to Sultan Kiram.
Members of Kiram’s family are warning of a “long civil war” in Sabah and the MNLF says it cannot stop its people from going to defend their ethnic brethren in the province.