A dramatic three-week standoff on the island of Borneo claimed its first lives Friday, as Malaysian security forces exchanged gunfire—and possibly mortars—with the so-called Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu. Early reportsindicate that 10 to 12 sultanate forces, two Malaysian police commandos, and the owner of a house taken by the sultan’s followers were killed in the battle, with further injuries on both sides. Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said that 10 of the sultan’s followers were in Malaysian custodybut had no word on casualties. Both sides blamed the other for firing first—as the Filipinos of the sultanate sought food to replenish their dwindling stores, Malaysian security forces tightened their security cordon—or both.
It is unclear whether the standoff has ended. Reports do not account for another 100 or more followers, believed to comprise the group holed up in Lahad Datu, Sabah Province, but the Philippines government received word that some of the Sultan’s men may have escaped toward the sea. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered his commanders to “take necessary action” to force the sultan’s followers out of the northeast corner of Borneo.
It is, says foreign policy analyst Joseph Hammond, “one of the most bizarre relationships in international relations.” Mix in rival secular and religious insurgent groups, titular heads of state, and a tenuous peace process and you have the background for a dramatic stand-off on the island of Borneo.
Malaysian police and armed forces are negotiating with [approximately 100 Filipino men, and possibly several hundred other Filipinos], who arrived by boat in the remote, eastern district of Lahad Datu, in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo. The men claim to be the “Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu” [A historic title encompassing southern Muslim areas of the Philippines and northern Borneo] and say they don’t want their people to be sent away from the area, Tan Sri Ismail Omar, the Inspector General of the Royal Malaysian Police, said [last] Thursday.
Malaysian police and the Malaysian Navy have blockaded the area. The Philippines’ Inquirer Global Nation reported that the group appears to be headed by the claimant to the title of Crown Prince of the Sultanate, or “Rajah Mudah,” who feels excluded by the terms of a peace deal between the government of the Philippines and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF):
“They are not interested, this government and the previous governments, so we decided to act on our own,” Rajah Mudah said.
Early on Feb. 11, Rajah Mudah and about 1,000 of his followers, including armed men from what he called “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” left Simunul Island in Tawi-Tawi in speedboats and headed for Sabah. Rajah Mudah described his action as not an act of aggression but a journey back home.
“We came here in peace. We are not here to wage war. The armed men who are with me are the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. We will never bring war to our own territory, much less to our own people,” Rajah Mudah said. His group landed in the village of Tunduao in Lahad Datu town in Sabah.
Sabah was a gift by Brunei to the sultanate of Sulu for helping crush a rebellion. But Sabah was leased [or ceded, depending on the translation and thus crux of the disagreement] by a British company to Malaysia that also pays the sultanate of Sulu some 6,300 ringgits [a ceremonial arrangement for continuing defacto control].
The Gulf Times also reported on developments in the Philippines, where its navy is increasing its patrols “near the port of Sulu province in southern Philippines…after tighter security was imposed in the area to prevent armed members from sending reinforcements.
A supposed heir to the throne of the sultanate of Sulu province and north Borneo has called on the President Benigno Aquino government to peacefully pursue claims to Sabah. He has also called on Malaysia not to harm the sultanate’s followers there.
Meanwhile, Aquino’s relative, former governor Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco of Tarlac province, yesterday, denied reports that she and her husband, former rep. Jose “Peping” Cojuangco of Tarlac, provoked Sultan Jamalul Kiram of Sulu, to regain Sabah.
Reports said that the Cojuangco couple, along with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari and former national security adviser Norberto Gonzales, instigated Kiram to regain Sabah to bungle the administration’s peace efforts in Mindanao.
The report, citing highly reliable sources, also said that Aquino viewed the couple’s move as a way to sabotage his administration’s peace initiatives with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). But Cojuangco, who is a senatorial candidate running under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA), said that the report did not come from the president himself but from an anonymous source. She dared the source to come out in the open, otherwise, his allegations will remain “hearsay.”
Philstar.com later reported that “MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari admitted that members of his group were among those holed up in Sabah.”
It’s a bizarre and complicated situation indeed.
LT Scott Cheney-Peters is a surface warfare officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and the former editor of Surface Warfare magazine. He is the founding director of the Center for International Maritime Security and holds a master’s degree in National Security and Strategic Studies from the U.S. Naval War College.
The opinions and views expressed in this post are his alone and are presented in his personal capacity. They do not necessarily represent the views of U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Navy.