Sabah Standoff: Diplomatic Drama After Filipino Militants Storm Malaysia

A diplomatic crisis is engulfing northern Borneo after a band of Filipino rebels seized control of a remote section of the island’s Sabah state

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Bazuki Muhammad / REUTERS

A member of the Malaysian navy guards the beach outside the village of Lahad Datu, in the Malaysian state of Sabah, on Feb. 19, 2013

A diplomatic crisis is engulfing part of Borneo, after Filipino rebels seized control of a remote section of Malaysia’s Sabah state as part of an unresolved territorial dispute that stretches back centuries. Malaysian security forces have surrounded 100 to 200 members of the Royal Army of Sulu, who have holed up in the village of Lahad Datu for the past two weeks in order to press their historic claim to the land. The Philippine and Malaysian governments are now engaged in tense negotiations in order to resolve the dispute without the use of force. The rebels, who hail from the autonomous island province of Sulu in the southwestern Philippines, had been given until midnight on Tuesday to voluntarily leave the area, but Manila has been desperately trying to negotiate an extension to this deadline to avoid bloodshed and a tense standoff currently hangs in place.

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The leader of the rebel unit is the brother of Jamalul Kiram III, one of the two main claimants to the title of Sultan of Sulu. Back in the 17th century, before the Philippines existed in its present form, the two principle sultanates in the region were Sulu and Brunei. In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei for some reason gave Sabah to the Sultanate of Sulu, which today is considered part of the Philippines. However, the picture is further complicated by an 1878 deal between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company, in which Sabah was leased to the Europeans on a rolling contract. To this day, the Malaysian government pays a token sum, equivalent to around $1,500, to the Philippines every year in recognition of this continuing arrangement. The Royal Army of Sulu interprets this deal as a lease that can be canceled, while Malaysia believes that it represents the permanent transfer of the territory.

It does not appear that the Malaysian authorities are willing to give up the land, which boasts valuable petroleum reserves, palm-oil plantations and also serves as an agricultural and manufacturing hub. Regional commentators have accused the Sulu rebels of trying to exploit past claims as a gateway toward ensuring future prosperity. “The governments of Malaysia and the Philippines are trying to manage this incident carefully,” Jonah Blank, senior political scientist specializing in Southeast Asia for RAND Corp., a global policy think-tank, tells TIME. “We’ve seen many Muslim rebel groups arise or take refuge in the southern part of the Philippines, and Malaysia has brokered a fragile cease-fire: neither Kuala Lumpur nor Manila is eager to see that fall apart.”

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Philippine President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday appealed to Kiram to instruct his brother to end the occupation. “If you are truly the leader of your people, you should be one with us in ordering your followers to return home peacefully,” he said during a statement aired on national TV. On Sunday, Manila sent the Philippine navy ship BRP Tagbanua to Borneo carrying Filipino-Muslim leaders, social workers and medical personnel for a “humanitarian mission” to bring their compatriots home. However, Royal Army of Sulu sources indicate that the rebels are not willing to entertain such a retreat.

Some observers believe that the timing of the occupation is designed to disrupt the Malaysian national elections that are due before the end of June, and the issue has now become a political hot potato domestically. The Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, a Philippine NGO, on Tuesday released a joint statement condemning the arbitrary detention of three al-Jazeera journalists who were in Sabah to report on the standoff. The group was eventually released after being held and interrogated for at least six hours. Liew Chin Tong, a Democratic Action Party MP and shadow Defense Minister for the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition of Malaysia, tells TIME that the country is now suffering the consequences of decades of poorly enforced border controls. “Sabah is a key state which was previously seen as a safe zone for the government but now keenly contested by the opposition,” he says.

MORE: The U.S. and the Philippines, a Century Ago: Dashed Dreams of Empire

40 comments
JhuneAquino
JhuneAquino

shame  for    both philippine  and malaysian  government  f o r    coniving each other regarding sabah it, belong to the sultanate of sulu, malaysia  now is  ruled by a demon bec. if they are truelly islam they will not eat " haq"from  bangsa suluk people,,,           the MNLF, MILF AND ABUSAYYAF was created by malaysian government for a purpose,1. to wage war in mindanao so that the sabah  issue   will be forgotten in  the heart and mind of our muslim  and  christian  brothers in mindanao.  2.these group was created to disunite the people in mindanao.to you malaysia , if  you really owned sabah why is it that your highest supreme  court judge mckaskie  granted the proprietary and sovereignty right   to sultan punjungan kiram     of  sulu  i nstead  to malaysia?its very elementary,and one thing i want to  reetirate to the public that, during  the  time of    Dr. mahathir  as prime   mi nister , he send  emisary to simunul island by  the name hji. Rasul  to negotiate  with regard to the  sovereignty and proprietary right   over north boneo in reciprocal amounting to $100M dollars but the holder of the grant letter   disapproved their offer  which they  believed that sabah not only   belongs to them but it is for the filipino people,but sad to say  that our present president is not a filipino thats why he dont want to tackle sabah   claimed  or maybe he was affraid to malaysia or affraid of losing something wh ich is profitable  coming  from malaysia.............unlike present Ferdinand Marcos.............allahu  akbar......

rodmandinnes
rodmandinnes

Malaysia can do what he want, Malaysia can afford a long protracted war than the phillipines against the mujahedin and sons of Sulu. It is the first step before the conquer of the Philippines.

Datu_Puti
Datu_Puti

Malaysia is the grand thief of ASIA ….they steal Sipadan and Ligitan islands, SARAWAK Indonesia and look now they did the same to SABAH….. you can’t fool the TAUSUGS they are one at heart with MNLF, MILF dreaded ABU SAYAFF group in south pHILS..to sow terror in ASIA all because they want to steal oil resource rich SABAH … SABAH will be AFGHANISTAN in no years time.

Datu_Puti
Datu_Puti

Malaysia is the grand thief of ASIA ….they steal Sipadan and Ligitan islands, SARAWAK Indonesia and look now they did the same to SABAH….. you can’t fool the TAUSUGS they are one at heart with MNLF, MILF dreaded ABU SAYAFF group in south pHILS..to sow terror in ASIA all because they want to steal oil resource rich SABAH … SABAH will be AFGHANISTAN in no years time…

kanda
kanda

malaysia that greedy others say the land belongs to them (malaysia) same crate when Indonesia lost Sipadan and Ligitan islands.malaysia is a thief and a Zionist who actually asia.back their rights were not yours malaysia

barrettstrong41
barrettstrong41

they are barbarians in this region. They are very cruel, killing women,children and old men!! some of their hostage had been forced to be a sex slaves..ASEAN should do somethings.

julianjupiter
julianjupiter

FYI,  Kiram & Company are not rebels but legal heirs and owners of Sabah. Sultanate of Sulu leased Sabah to British North Borneo Company, which up to now said leasing agreement still goes on as Malaysian government continues to pay an equivalent to around $1,500. If Malaysia pays then obviously it's not theirs but of Sultanate of Sulu. Why would they pay if it's not theirs? Why would they pay to Sultanate of Sulu if Sultanate of Sulu is not the owner of the same? C'mon!

MichaelLing
MichaelLing

The most corrupt regime, useless and hope less Malaysian government who only know how to discriminate it own peoples but could not solve the problem of the invasion by a group of terrorist. SHAME ON  YOU bloody sucker Malaysian coalition (BN) government!!!!! 

AndyShort
AndyShort

Historical agreements aside, you cannot expect to invade a neighboring nation under arms and get away with it..these people show a clear lack of understanding of modern international laws!

MendyHartsook
MendyHartsook

The Philippines aren't exactly an example of success.

They can't control the evil under their noses. First things first.

philip.hernaez
philip.hernaez

Dear Charlie Campbell,

They are NOT  REBELS . They are the owners of Sabah.



jiMMy
jiMMy

Nothing is new... Apopears  like the Americaan taking of  Texas (Tejas) from the Mexicans!