Updated at 9:12 a.m on Tuesday.
Malaysian police on Tuesday morning raided the northern Borneo village stormed by a band of Filipino rebels in a bid to end a three-week standoff that had already claimed at least 26 lives. Two Malaysian commandos and a dozen members of the Royal Army of Sulu died in a previous police crackdown on the insurgent-held territory on Friday evening, with a further five Malaysian policemen ambushed and killed nearby the next day. Another seven insurgents were reportedly slain in a separate incident on Saturday. While most of the remaining Sulu militants refuse to budge, police fear that some are planning further strikes in the surrounding coastal regions. The turmoil is causing domestic upheaval for the two governments involved: Malaysia has general elections due before the end of June, while Philippine President Benigno Aquino III could face renewed strife on home soil after he appeared to sanction the foreign use of deadly force against his defiant countrymen.
The situation, which was at first greeted with raised eyebrows within the international community, has deteriorated rapidly. On Feb. 9, more than 100 followers of self-professed Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, from the autonomous island province of Sulu in the southwestern Philippines, landed in the Malaysian state of Sabah to press their historic claim to the land. They seized control of the village of Lahad Datu only to be surrounded by the Malaysian security forces. Aquino appealed for his compatriots to return home peacefully and even sent a navy ship staffed with Filipino-Muslim leaders, social workers and medical personnel to facilitate their withdrawal. However, he finally lost patience with the recalcitrant Sulu insurgents and said on Saturday that they must surrender “without conditions.” The rebels had previously snubbed two deadlines to vacate the land.
The President’s uncompromising stance may have far-reaching consequences. Mohagher Iqbal, chief negotiator of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which signed a peace deal with Manila in October after four decades of armed struggle, has already admitted that their own peace talks have been affected. The Philippine media has also been critical of Aquino’s stance. “President Aquino and his officials were throwing to the Malaysian wolves Filipino Muslims digging in what they claimed was their legitimate homeland in Sabah,” says Rigoberto Tiglao in the Manila Times. “With that the president has driven the last nail on the coffin of the Philippine claim to Sabah,” read an editorial on Monday in the Philippine Daily Inquirer. “What he didn’t say to the sultan’s men was: If you get slaughtered by the Malaysians, that’s your fault. Condolences.”
Aquino used a televised speech on Monday evening to allege that “conspirators” were behind the standoff. “I am aware that certain personalities conspired and brought us to this situation — one that has no quick solution,” he said. However, observers believe the driving force behind the Sabah incursion was anger among Sulu rebels for being left out of Malaysia-brokered peace talks with the MILF. Mujahid Yusof Rawa, an MP for Malaysia’s opposition Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party, told TIME that the rebels are trying to get the Malaysian government’s attention. “There are a lot of Sulu dissidents who have moved to Sabah over the past 10 years — some of whom have been granted permanent residency — and their presence may complicate the matter,” he said. “I think the government is very wary of any backlash for the upcoming election.”
The situation has undoubtedly been hugely embarrassing for Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who must call national polls by June. Opposition groups have highlighted lax border security and allegations that citizenship was possibly given to hundreds of thousands of illegal Filipino and Indonesian migrants in Sabah during the 1990s in exchange for their votes. Some of these immigrants, sympathetic to the Sulu rebels and angered by the Malaysian assault on Lahad Datu, may now form a substantial anti-incumbent bloc for the looming ballot.
Najib, however, is fighting back. The news website Malaysia Today reported on Wednesday that he asked the Malaysian intelligence to investigate whether the opposition camp was behind the Sabah incursion. Ong Ooi Heng, executive director of the Political Studies for Change, a Kuala Lumpur–based think-tank, told TIME that the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition could potentially use the Sabah incident to instill a climate of fear among the electorate. “All over the world, external threat is always seen as a useful strategy to foster nationalism, hence to unite the voters under one roof and benefit the ruling regime most of the time,” he said.
Philippine diplomatic officials on Sunday appealed to the Filipino-Malaysian community in Sabah to remain calm. Meanwhile, the U.K. Foreign and Commonwealth Office on Sunday released a statement advising against travel to the area around Sabah’s eastern coastline. The Moro National Liberation Front — from which the MILF broke away in 1977 — has urged the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation and the U.N. to intervene between Kuala Lumpur and the sultanate of Sulu, while insisting that Aquino’s administration should not get involved. The dispute also spilled online over the weekend with a raft of Malaysian and Philippine websites hacked and vandalized by opposing factions. It remains to be seen whether the raid on Tuesday morning will mark the end of the standoff or if remaining armed militants roaming the Sabah coastline will continue to cause havoc in the coming days.