KUALA LUMPUR - Tensions are high in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah following a stand-off between militants from the nearby southern Philippines and Malaysian security forces. An estimated 235 armed militants landed in eastern Sabah in early February and occupied several villages in an effort to assert a centuries-old claim over the territory.
Both sides have accused the other of firing the first shot, but once the stand-off produced Malaysian causalities, security forces deployed fighter jets and launched an unprecedented air assault to flush out the militant group. At least 52 militants have been killed, in addition to several Malaysian policemen who were reportedly mutilated by the insurgents.
The Manila-based Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, has directed the insurgency from afar, while his brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, led ground operations into Sabah. The sultanate insists that Sabah is its homeland and that it will not budge on its claims over the territory even if its personnel are killed in the stand-off.
An earlier Asia Times Online report broke the news that militants sent an e-mail message to Malaysian authorities that included images of beheaded police officers. The insurgents identified themselves as the "Royal Sulu Army", representing the now-defunct Sulu Sultanate that controlled the territory for centuries before leasing the land to the colonial British North Borneo Company in 1878. Britain made what was then North Borneo a protectorate in 1888 and the territory became part of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
At the time, the Philippines contested the transfer, claiming that the British did not possess the authority to transfer ownership to Malaysia. A British commission in 1962 had reported that two-thirds of the population favored joining Malaysia. The Malaysian government also began paying small annual payments to the heirs of the Sultanate as compensation for their cession of the land, an arrangement that has continued to the present day.
Malaysia originally took a soft approach on the Filipino militants by offering them the opportunity to lay down their arms and leave peacefully, leading many to criticize the government and security forces for allowing the militants to penetrate Malaysian territory. Local media referred to the gunmen as "intruders", but soon after the gunmen engaged security personnel in a firefight, Malaysia began referring to the group as "terrorists".
Prime Minister Najib Razak authorized intense retaliatory strikes, calling for the total surrender of militants. Following the airstrikes, Kiram told Filipino media that he was unable to contact his brother, militant leader Agbimuddin Kiram, and that he was increasingly worried over the safety of his "royal army" in Sabah, prompting the Manila-based sultan to call for a ceasefire. Najib reiterated that he would not consider any request unless the militants in Sabah turn over their arms to the Malaysian authorities and surrendered.
The Philippine government under President Benigno Aquino has sided with Malaysia and reiterated its call to Kiram's followers to surrender to prevent further bloodshed. Aquino has spoken of punishing the sultan and his men for masterminding the armed rebellion in Sabah, prompting a domestic backlash that threatens fragile peace deals with separatist militant groups sympathetic to Kiram's cause. His fighters are mostly ethnic Tausugs from the Philippines' Sulu region, some of whom have aligned themselves with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a rebel group which has long fought and negotiated for autonomy over territories in the southern Philippines.
Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), warned the Aquino government of chaos if Kiram is arrested or his men apprehended. Misuari founded the MNLF in 1969 with the aim of forming an independent egalitarian nation in the Philippines' easternmost regions of Mindanao, Palawan, and Sulu. The organization has at times preached religious tolerance, and is composed of Muslims, Christians, and followers of indigenous faiths.
An MNLF offshoot - the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) - is known to have perpetrated brutal violence and murder. The ASG maintains links to Al-Qaeda networks and is known for its kidnapping-for-ransom of foreigners. US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks implicate a Saudi Arabian ambassador to the Philippines of bolstering Filipino terrorist networks with cash through religious charities.
At a recent press conference, Misuari stated, "And for what reason is he [Aquino] aligning this country with Malaysia, a colonial power occupying the land of our people? I am against that, totally against that with all my soul. I hope the president will be properly advised. I hope he will recant. Otherwise we won't forgive him. And there is an attempt even to arrest the sultan, I understand. Let them do that. The country will be in total chaos if they do, I promise you." Misuari also warned Najib that targeting Filipino Muslims in Sabah "would be tantamount to war".
The Philippine Daily Inquirer reported that MNLF member Habib Hashim Mudjahab claimed that at least 10,000 Tausug people from islands in the southern Philippines were headed to Sabah to act as reinforcements in support of the Royal Sulu Army. Filipinos in Sabah who are not part of the Royal Sulu forces have reportedly joined the fighting in reaction to what they perceive as atrocities committed by the Malaysian government. Former MNLF member Hadji Acmad Bayam told the Manila Bulletin that MNLF forces may have a significant weapons arsenal hidden within Sabah's thick jungles left behind by MNLF commanders who have moved in and out of the region over the years.
Malaysia will soon hold a general election that pits incumbent premier Najib against de-facto opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. Najib has voiced suspicion as to why the Sulu rebels chose to pursue their long-standing claim to Sabah when the country was preparing to hold a general election, which must be held by June.
Reuters cited sources within the Malaysian government who claimed that the gunmen were suspected to have links to factions that were unhappy with the Philippines' recent peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another breakaway group from the MNLF which today is widely recognized as the mainstay of the ethnic Moro movement.
Malaysia acted as the facilitator for that 2012 peace agreement. Kuala Lumpur has played a key role in facilitating peace talks between Manila and rebel groups in Mindanao since 2001. However, the MNLF publicly opposed MILF's Framework Agreement with Manila. Reuters also cited an anonymous Filipino military officer who claimed that Sulu rebels were "invited to Sabah by a Malaysian opposition politician to discuss land issues".
Najib then ordered Malaysian intelligence officials to investigate claims that an opposition leader had a hand in the armed intrusion in Sabah. Opposition leader Anwar has already pressed charges against Malaysian broadcasters for running a story implicating his involvement in the insurgency, and has vehemently denied any involvement. Pro-government mainstream media in Malaysia is routinely critical of Anwar's links to foreign figures. Bloggers have also posted photographs of Anwar meeting with MNLF leader Misuari, insinuating cooperation between the two in coordinating the Sabah invasion by the Kiram's royal army.
Tian Chua, one of the leaders of the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition headed by Anwar, has accused the ruling party of orchestrating the gun battle with Filipino militants, claiming that the incursion was a "planned conspiracy of the [UMNO] government" to divert attention and intimidate the people in the run-up to elections. The ruling party has unanimously denied the allegations.
Filipino sources, meanwhile, claim that the Sulu Sultanate's incursion into Sabah is an attempt to undermine Aquino at midterm elections scheduled for May. Kiram ran as a senator allied to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo during elections in 2007 and Filipino politicians allied to him are seen as pressuring Aquino to pardon his predecessor, who remains under house arrest for electoral fraud.
Kiram has told media in the Philippines that he wants the United Nations, the United States and the United Kingdom to intervene in his claim over Sabah. The Sultanate claims that the US must intercede, as agreed upon in a 1915 agreement signed with then US colonial government in the Philippines that mandated the US provide "full protection" to the Sulu Sultan in exchange for exercising sovereignty over the kingdom as the colonial administration.
The resource-rich state of Sabah is abundant in oil and gas reserves which contribute to 14% of Malaysia's natural gas and 30% of its crude oil. Sabah's 15 oil wells produce as many as 192,000 barrels per day. Four new oilfields have been found in Sabah's territorial waters over the last two years.
That's led some to speculate that perhaps one of the motivations for the Sultan's push to reclaim the territory is profit-driven. Even so, the highly suspect timing of the Sulu operation ahead of Malaysia's general elections has added to the intrigue, as have questions about the Kiram's sources of arms and funding. Analysts say the Sulu Sultanate could have taken several alternative dialogue-based approaches to address the situation that would have yielded infinitely less destructive consequences for his followers and his cause.
The insurgent approach taken by the militants under his command has undermined the Sultan's claims and credibility, and lent credence to alternative narratives that allude to the crisis as being manufactured to bring about a conflict at a politically sensitive time. Malaysia seldom faces security crises, especially the sort that this conflict could expand into if more Filipino militants take up arms.
Malaysia's upcoming general election is expected to be extremely close, and many fear that a wider crisis could delay the polls. Kiram has spoken of foreign intervention as the only solution to the conflict. As many Filipinos categorize the actions taken by Malaysia as "atrocities", a credible threat exists in the prospect of a wider war if MNLF soldiers establish a foothold in Sabah. While Najib's position will likely remain firm, the risks are rising of a wider crisis as security forces engage militants and reports from the front stir nationalistic passions.
Nile Bowie is an independent political analyst residing in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Sent by Joyo News Indonesia