The followers of the Sultan of Sulu who are now in a standoff with Malaysian forces in Sabah have until Tuesday, February 26, to leave the town of Lahad Datu peacefully, or they would be arrested and deported back to the Philippines.
This develops as Manila asked Kuala Lumpur for a four-day extension of the deadline set for Friday, February 22, by Malaysia for the Filipinos, who have been holed up in Lahad Datu’s coastal village of Tanduao since February 9, to leave. The Filipinos are laying claim to Sabah, Malaysia’s 13th state, on the northern tip of Borneo Island.
“I’ve spoken to the foreign minister this morning,” Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters late Friday. “I called him because the effort to have the Filipinos withdraw from Sabah on a peaceful basis is still a work in progress.”
He is referring to Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifa Aman, to whom he had relayed Manila’s request for a four-day extension of the deadline for the arrest and deportation of the armed group led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, who is the crown prince of Sulu.
On Thursday, the Philippine Navy said it has deployed vessels to the Sulu Sea, to intensify its watch on the backwaters of the Philippines, an hour ride by speedboat to Sabah. The vessels are patrolling the southern waters together with Malaysia’s naval forces.
Reports on the number of Filipinos holed up in Tandauo vary, with the media reporting anywhere from 100 to 1,500. Some say there were about 1,500 Filipinos who arrived in Sabah on February 9, but only about 300 of them were discovered in Tandauo on February 11. Yet other reports say there are only about 100 of them holed up in Tanduao, 20 of whom are armed to the teeth.
Raja Mudah, a brother to Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram, and his men said they’re laying their claim to Saba on their own, being heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, an autonomous island-province in southern Philippines, as Manila had neglected their plight when it recently signed a preliminary peace accord with a Moro group in Mindanao.
A number of political analysts and politicians have thrown their support for the claim to Sabah that should be brought into arbitration by the Philippine government before the United Nations.
Representative Teddy Casiño, of the party-list Bayan Muna (Country First), who is running for senator in the May 13 election, pointed out that the government should revived the Sabah claim and “vigorously” pursue a peaceful solution to the ongoing standoff in Tanduao.
“The recent actions of the Sulu sultanate have very strong historical and legal basis,” he was quoted by the Philippine Daily Inquirer as saying on Friday. “In fact, they’re acting on our continuing claim to Sabah which has been dormant under previous administrations.”
Malaysia continues to pay a token annual rent of 5,300 ringgit or 77,000 pesos (Dh6,943.42) to the Sultanate of Sulu as a “cession fee”. The Philippines’ claim to Sabah, made on behalf of the Sultanate of Sulu, was first made during the term of President Diosdado Macapagal in 1962 before Sabah officially became a state of Malaysia.
Various historical records between 1473 and 1658 proved that Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo, was part of the Sultanate of Brunei. In 1658, the Sultanate of Brunei ceded Sabah to the sultan of Sulu, who had helped settle a civil war in Brunei.
“Historical records show that the Philippines has the upper hand,” Casiño said, referring to foreign colonisers, who later occupied Malaysia and the Philippines. “Many accounts reveal that the Sultanate of Sulu predates all existing governments. The Philippine government must follow through on its official claim to the territory not only for the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, but for the Filipino people and nation.”
The colonisers United Kingdom, Germany and Spain signed the Madrid Protocol, in 1885, which recognises the sovereignty of Spain in the Sulu archipaelago. The act was in exchange for the relinquishment by Spain of all its claims to Sabah in favour of the UK. In 1888, Sabah became a protectorate of the UK, which was then occupying Malaysia as its coloniser.
On Wednesday, reelectionist Senator Antonio Trillanes IV called on President Aquino III to disclose his policy on the country’s claim to Sabah, as the standoff between armed Filipinos and Malaysian forces in Tanduao village entered a second week. He told reporters in the central Philippine city of Cebu that he would soon be briefing the president on Sabah.
It may be recalled that the senator was Aquino III’s backchannel link to Beijing last month, when tensions went high between the Philippines and China over territorial disputes in the West Philippine Sea, otherwise known as the South China Sea.
Earlier reports said Aquino III had sent emissaries to convince Sultan Jamalul Kiram, who is in a Manila hospital undergoing dialysis, to recall his followers from Sabah. The latter, however, instructed his followers on Thursday to stay put.
The Kiram brothers and their followers have claimed that no peace agreements with any Moro groups in Mindanao, which is predominantly Christian but also home to Muslim minority, would succeed without addressing the Sabah issue, saying the territorial claim should be an “integral part” of such accords.
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