Manila to Talk with Kirams Amid Sabah’s Deadly Insurgency
Image Credit: Wikicommons

Manila to Talk with Kirams Amid Sabah’s Deadly Insurgency


As the death toll from the Sabah insurgency mounts, authorities in Manila have decided to hold talks with the Kirams, whose delusions of grandeur and old clan ties to the East Malaysian state have resulted in a deadly stand-off with the Malaysian military.

But more importantly, this begs the question: Why has Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, not been charged with murder, probable kidnapping, taking-up arms in a foreign land and inciting an insurgency?

The insurgents, who are fighting in Kiram’s name, risk putting East Malaysia on par with southern Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan. They have no military standing, nor any legal right to be there.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

At least 62 people – including mercenaries employed by Kiram, Malaysian police who were simply doing their job and civilians caught in the crossfire – have been killed since the insurgency turned violent almost two weeks ago. Thousands more have fled their homes.

Kiram’s reasons for launching the rebellion, staged by up to 300 armed men and women, are numerous but primarily selfish.

The prospect of a successful peace in Mindanao after years of talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) will no doubt upset the established powers, including Jamalul Kiram III, which have long used the troubles in the Southern Philippines for their own ends.

Kidnapping, extortion and rule by force have flourished over the decades and are largely responsible for the 800,000 Filipino refugees living in camps dotted around Sabah on the northern tip of Borneo.

Their presence has virtually transformed towns like Sandakan, Lahad Datu, Semporna and Tawau into an extension of Mindanao, with Malaysian authorities doing little to control illegal immigration flows. The border between Malaysia and Indonesia is also notoriously porous.

Malaysia’s refusal to act along its borders also compromised its relations with regional and Western powers during the War on Terror when Indonesia-based Islamic militants, particularly members of Jemaah Islamiyah, found safe passage through East Malaysia to Mindanao, where they pitched tents with the Abu Sayyaf camp.

Of equal importance, Malaysia’s apparent indifference to border issues on its eastern flank allowed members of the Abu Sayyaf to cross back into Sabah at will. This led to the kidnapping and killing of locals and Western tourists from nearby islands more than a decade ago and sporadic violence ever since.

Several warnings of potential attacks have been issued by the United States in recent years.

Kiram’s mercenaries have simply followed the same well-established route from their bases in the southern Philippines, helped by Manila’s refusal to recognize Malaysia’s claim to Sabah.

But the Philippine government’s decision to hold talks with Kiram is a dangerous move that could lend legitimacy to another outdated claim to Sabah. More than likely it will result in more grief for the hapless civilians who live there.

If Kiram’s anachronistic claims are not dealt with legally and efficiently then Sabah could find itself embroiled in the same types of insurgencies that have dogged Mindanao for the last 40 years. Such an outcome would warrant further comparisons with Pakistan. After all, it was Islamabad that ignored warnings and provided passage and sanctuary to the Taliban during Afghanistan’s civil wars prior to 9/11. Now the Taliban have turned on Pakistan.

It would be a great shame if the insurgents and mercenaries from Mindanao were to follow suit in Sabah.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief