When about 200 supporters of the Sultan of Sulu packed M16s into boats and made the one-hour crossing from Sulu in the southern Philippines to Lahad Datu in Malaysian Borneo’s eastern Sabah on February 9, no-one took much notice.
Initial international media reports a few days later were vague about who the group was. Even in their native Philippines, many had no idea what Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, was prepared to fight for. But they certainly do now.
Even before Malaysia attacked the group with fighter jets on Tuesday,the crisis had escalated and spread rapidly. Last Friday, 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian counter-terrorism police were killed in a shootout, while six more police and 11 Filipinos, including two imams, were reportedly killed 190 miles (300 km) south in Semporna. Meanwhile, the sultan’s son and the group’s leader Raja Muda Kiram have dispersed with surviving members of the group. Political fallout in both the Philippines and Malaysia has grown by the day.
The standoff has not only tested Philippine-Malaysia ties, it has also had implications for the imminent elections in both countries as well as the fragile Philippines peace process.
Dating back to the late 19th century when the British ruled Malaya, the sultan’s claim to parts of the eastern half of Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo) has resurrected one of the biggest sovereignty disputes by land area in the region. Successive Malaysian and Philippine administrations have found it much simpler to sweep the issue under the carpet than resolve it once and for all.
It’s a status quo that Abraham Idjirani, secretary-general and spokesperson for the sultanate, says Manila has tried to preserve in the name of safeguarding ties with Kuala Lumpur as the dispute has come to a boil.
“The only request from both sides is to surrender – this appears to be the policy of both governments,” he told The Diplomat on Sunday after the violence spread to Semporna.
In trying to rein in the sultan, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has changed his stance almost daily. At first, he tried to entice the sultan’s men back. Then, Aquino said his administration would seek to prosecute the sultan and his followers. After violence erupted last Friday he said all would be forgotten, if only the group would return.
As the election campaign kicks off ahead of Senate and mayoral polls in mid-May, Aquino and his ruling Liberal Party are coming under growing criticism by the press, public and an opposition keen to score political points.
An opinion article in the Philippines Star called Aquino “clueless” on Sunday, while the Opposition National Alliance – opponents for the Senate race – complained of “arrogance” in dealings with the sultan during a press briefing the same day.