The Situation in Borneo


The Malaysian Navy maintains its blockade on Borneo of a group of Filipinos loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu.
The Malaysian Navy maintains its blockade on Borneo of a group of Filipinos loyal to the Sultanate of Sulu.


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.

CNN Reports:

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 establish a checkpoint in Sabah.
           Malaysian police establish a checkpoint in Sabah.


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.

Security forces of the Sultanate of Sulu.
     Security forces of the Sultanate of Sulu.


According to the Gulf Times:

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.


A Philippines Navy patrol off the port of Sulu.
                                                                       The Philippines Navy patrols off the port of Sulu.

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.” 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. 

4 thoughts on “The Situation in Borneo”

  1. Nur Misauri being involved helps explain why this could actually be about embarrasing the Philippine government through sabotaging the peace process between with the MILF. The agreement that the Aquino government negotiated with the MILF (an offshoot of the MNLF) creates an autonomous entity formed of the Muslim-majority provinces called “Bangsmoro,” which replaces the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM, negotiated with the MNLF in the 90s). The major obstacle towards a deal with the MILF was always that the Muslim parts of the Philippines had already been “given” to the MNLF in the form of the ARMM…making a deal with the MILF reverses the roles between the two groups with the MNLF now the potential spoiler after having their autonomous regional government taken away from them.

    As mentioned in the linked Philippine Star article…the Sultanate issue was a big catalyst in forming the Moro nationalist movement in the 60s/70s, the “Jabida Massacre,” in which Moros/Muslims recruited by the Philippine military to infiltrate/sabotage Malaysia mutinied and were killed by Ferdinand Marcos’ troops, was very much the rallying cry of a young Nur Misauri.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.