Sabah Insurgency: A Political Bonus for PM Najib Razak
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Sabah Insurgency: A Political Bonus for PM Najib Razak


As the bloodshed escalates in the East Malaysian state of Sabah, more troops are being dispatched, piling pressure on Prime Minister Najib Razak. There is, however, a political silver lining in this situation: Najib could use the conflict to his benefit by declaring a state of emergency, which in turn could allow for Malaysia’s polls to be delayed until June.

This would be good news for the embattled prime minister, who is expected to see his majority reduced in the coming polls. His United Malay National Organization (UMNO) endured its worst ever electoral performance five years ago.

Further, Sabah was expected to be the lynchpin in this election. Since around 200 mercenaries representing the Sultan of Sulu arrived in Sabah in early February, conflict with Malaysian forces has been ongoing. Polls in the traditionally Christian state could be delayed until the unrest subsides.

This would suit Sabah state Chief Minister Musa Aman and Prime Minister Najib, as they both struggle to win votes and contain the violence that has claimed the lives of at least eight police and at least 15 Filipinos.

Sources said that 235 men and women had now arrived unarmed and that they obtained their weapons – including M16 carbines, grenade launchers and Colt 45 pistols – through connections who buried the arms cache in the sands of Lahad Datu’s beaches. They said more weapons are believed to be buried and more private soldiers are expected to arrive.

The first battalion split into three groups. One group is holed-up at Kampong Tanduo about 160 kilometers north of Lahad Datu. Meanwhile, a second has camped in a water village near the picturesque town of Semporna and a third regiment is stationed at a village called Pelangi near Bukit Garam.

Much of the reasoning behind the attack has been linked to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu. The tricky fact of the matter, however, is that there are at least nine who claim to be the true sultan. These rival “sultans” claim rights to various parts of the Southern Philippines and Sabah, which were divided and cobbled together again by the British as they organized their retreat from colonial Malaya and North Borneo.

One claim was made two years ago by Sabah-based businessman Datu Mohd Akjan bin Datu Ali Muhammad who was widely viewed as an ungrateful Filipino refugee after proclaiming himself to be the Sultan of Sulu. Importantly, the Philippines do not recognize Malaysian control of Sabah, while the Malaysians have always encouraged strong ties with the Muslims in the southern Philippines.

The legal counsel for heirs to the original sultan receives a meager payment of $1,700 a year from Malaysia for Sabah. This amount was disputed in 1963, but few have complained since. Despite many flaws, Sabah is a rich, modern state that is as much a part of the international community as it is Malaysian. The idea that any of the self-appointed sultans have any legitimacy here is simply nonsense. Official acceptance of their claims won’t happen.

If Kiram and his genuine followers were serious about receiving official recognition of their claims, they would be wise to follow the examples set by Thailand and Cambodia and take their dispute to the UN-backed international courts. But they have never shown any inclination in this direction.

Equally, the Filipino troops – well-armed, fierce and a preference for banditry and fighting – have little legitimacy. From somewhere within their pecking order these mercenaries have no doubt been promised more riches from Sabah than can be afforded them in their native Mindanao.

Soldiers from the 21st Royal Malay Regiment, 8th Brigade Camp from Kuala Lumpur have been dispatched, with soldiers from another two battalions to follow. The troops will join largely local forces in North Borneo who are poorly paid and have so far proved incapable of rounding up the intruders.

How Najib reacts next, with an election in mind and the prospect that the insurgency could spread among an estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah, will no doubt become one of the most important legacies of his time in office.   

Luke Hunt spent four years based in Sabah for The Diplomat.


March 22, 2013 at 23:42

An inquiry? Sir I doubt you did an "inquiry" as upon just a simple research you would find that the Brunei times reveals that according to Brunei history Brunei never surrendered Sabah to Sulu as Sulu had failed to assist in fact the claim that Sabah was given to them comes from Sulu not as you claim from Brunei.

Before the 1878 agreement with Sultan of Sulu Baron Von Overbeck recieved the whole of Sabah including the sections that Sulu is claiming this is clear in their contract agreement the claim that Sulu recieved Sabah for helping is being denied by Brunei and its historians even a quick check can show that.

You have only listened to Sulus version of events but make the baseless claim against the author of this article showing your own bias the sultan of Brunei would not have been destroyed we are talking about a civil war between two rival claimants.

"According to Pehin Jamil, Sultan Muhydin refused to cede the territories claimed by Sulu. Pehin Jamil noted that the area was only "claimed" and not "ceded", as Sir Stamford Raffles, in his book "History of Java" (1830), had noted "on the north-east of Borneo proper (Brunei) lies a very considerable territory (Sabah), the sovereignty of which has long been claimed by Sulu Government".

Pehin Jamil further noted that according to the oral tradition, Sulu continued to press their claim. In 1775, one of their chiefs came to Brunei pretending to seek fresh water. What they really wanted was to seek an audience with the Sultan regarding Sabah. However, the Sultan ordered one of the chief wazirs to see them and he threatened that if they wanted to pursue their intention, he will kill them all. The Sulus immediately left. Despite that setback, the Sulus continue to maintain their claims.

The argument that Brunei has not ceded Sabah to Sulu is supported by LR Wright in her book The Origins of British Borneo (1970). She wrote: "indeed, the legitimacy of the Sulu claim to the territory (North Borneo) is in considerable doubt partly because of the unreliability of tarsilas such as 'Selesilah', which in many cases are nothing more than written-down legends to enhance the status of the royal house which produced them. Succeeding Sultans of Brunei have denied that northern Borneo was given to Sulu, and only the weight of Sulu tradition supports the claim. The weight of Brunei tradition challenges it".

The Sulu claim is currently resting on that treaty which was mentioned at the beginning of this article signed by Sultan Jamalalulazam of Sulu appointing Baron de Overbeck as Dato Bendahara and Raja Sandakan on 22nd January 1878. But at the beginning of this article, there is, in fact, another treaty which was signed earlier by Sultan Abdul Momin appointing Baron de Overbeck as the Maharaja Sabah, Rajah Gaya and Sandakan signed on 29th December 1877. In 1877, the Brunei Sultanate then still believed and maintained that the territory was in fact still under the control of the Brunei Sultanate."

This sir,is a exerpt from the article that denies Sulu's claim and in fact Brunei historians deny Sabah was given as Sulu failed to help their requests were denied to receive that land. Von overbeck to avoid trouble simply signed a separate deal which granted those lands forever the suluk claiming it was a lease British version claiming it was cession despite this both versions make it clear that Von Overbeck and company have full rights with HRH consul general of Brunei having the final say on any transfer.

The real tragedy is people like yourself ignore the wishes of the people in order to support a feudal ancient lord who disregards human life for money the middle ages have gone people have rights over Kings.

The Sultan of Brunei's "silence" is because Sabah no longer belongs to him but Malaysia he has supported Malaysia why should he come to support a poor cousin whose claim is against the history of Brunei that land was never given to Sulu and only sulu claim that they recieved people ignore every angle and only believe this one groups claim.

March 22, 2013 at 23:30

sorry need to add that the people of Sulu actually declared themselves independent in 2010 (its a symobolic independence) the people chose a distant cousin of the Kirams to be their sultan as selected by the peoples representatives I know that no Suluk respect those sultans who live far away or become cosy with those they preceive as their oppressors 

March 22, 2013 at 23:26

@cyprus Which Kiram are you talking about? Jamulral Kiram the man in question is not the legitimate sultan and so much is their ilegitimacy and clownery his brother crowned himself sultan as well imagine if Queen Elizabeth 2 sister had also crowned herself queen of Great Britain.

His family are recognised by the people but not him and many members of his family in fact the people of Sulu must be included in all decision making yet this Kiram lives in Manila many miles away which is why he isn't loved or supported by the Tausugs.

Paying a cession fee is not rental its cession as recognised by the court that ordered the payments to continue the deal meant that forever Sabah will belong to British Borneo company and under its deal any transfer was to take place with the permission of HRH consul general of the British crown not as a lot of people are being misled into believing that Sulu Sultan was the one to have that authority. He is just one of the people being paid he is not the sole person reciving the money I believe the money is paid into the office of the Sulu Sultan who then divide the money 9 ways these are the 9 recognised heirs of the sulu sultanate this does not mean the office of Sultan is still recognised it just means he is a recognised heir.

March 8, 2013 at 15:59

As a Malaysian, I think I have better understanding about the certain political measures in Malaysia. The last poll, the opposition had successfully ignited hatred toward the ruling parties due to last minute high increase of domestic oil price as instructed by former PM, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (we called Pak Lah) which I think the major points that affect Malaysian economically and socially. Najib (who has excellence service records viewed by most public) took over the remaining years from Pak Lah has done one of the best economic transformation program that could be learnt by many countries. I could bet that there would be no state of emergency to be declared for the whole Sabah but maybe for regional level (for area like Lahad Datu and Semporna). Malaysia has experienced with Communist insurgency in Malaysian Peninsular during 70s to 90s and the national poll was always going on. In fact the word "Insurgency" is not precise. It should be "Intrusion" because the conflict is initiated by the Pirates of Sulu and it is not comes from the very natives of Sabah. We really need to understand the Malaysia is multi-racial country where most of its citizen has direct or ancestral relatives from other countries like Thailand, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, China, Phillipines, Singapore, Brunei, Holland, Portugal, Arabs, and British. For me for example, I have relatives in Thailand and Kalimantan, Indonesia. Therefore, if the some Sabahan are from Mindanao, well that is normal. If this ancestral claim is treated by UN despite the Geneva Convention on the formation of Malaysia, well I think this would provoke other ancestral claims across the globe. China of course could expand its ancestral claims in Asia Pacific, Johore (one of Royal State in Malaysia) could claim back Singapore, and Red Indians chiefs on certain land in United States. How about that?

March 6, 2013 at 06:13

thus the masterpla in progress. Sabah has 22 parliament seats, was tilting towards the opposition. losing Sanah seats would mean losing the government for Najib. So stir up trouble, declare emergency in Sabah, suspend elections there, win the rest of Malaysia, get another few years or power. Emergency can last for some time as Suluk and MNLF will oblige…

March 6, 2013 at 00:17

Luke you should take note that Kiram is the legitimate sultan of Sulu as Malaysia pays him the rental for Sabah, also his lineage can be traced and his family is recognized in Sulu by the Tausug Tribe who are the people of the Sultan.

Soren Skye
March 5, 2013 at 19:40

Mr. Hunt's sweeping comment as to the legitimacy of the Sultan's claim reveals him to be either ignorant or biased. An in-depth inquiry will tell Mr. Hunt that the land of Sabah was given by Brunei for the Sultan's help in quelling an insurgency that might have resulted in the demise of the Brunei Sultanate. The real tragedy of this incident is the injustice of the British Empire and now of the Malaysian government, the inaction of the Philippine government, and the silence of the Sultan of Brunei.


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