The New Sultan of Sulu

Recent Features


The New Sultan of Sulu

Locals in East Malaysia aren’t amused by a businessman’s decision to proclaim himself the new Sultan of Sulu.

Sabah-based businessman Datu Mohd Akjan bin Datu Ali Muhammad has certainly upset the locals in East Malaysia. Seen by many here as a rank opportunist and an ungrateful Filipino refugee, Akjan made his bed by proclaiming himself the Sultan of Sulu.

Dressed in white, perched on a small golden throne and surrounded by friends and relatives, he made the move as part of a ceremony at his suburban home in Kota Kinabalu a month ago. He even has an interim government headed by Prime Minister Datu Albi Ahmad Julkarnain, who said Akjan had been installed as the 33rd reigning Sultan of the Sulu Sultanate after taking his oath of allegiance in a private yet symbolic ceremony.

Significantly, the self-anointed ruler's declaration ignores Filipino sovereignty over a large chunk of the Southern Philippines, and includes a claim of Sabah coming under his jurisdiction. Groups like terrorist outfit Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) have apparently sworn allegiance to the new Sultan.

In claiming himself to be the real Sultan in exile, Akjan is basically saying the current government of Sulu, backed by the Philippine government, is illegitimate—Manila has recognized Esmail Dalus Kiram II as the rightful Sultan of Sulu.

It’s a very messy issue and serves to highlight the mistrust Sabahans reserve for politicians in West Malaysia and Filipinos who would prefer sanctuary in Sabah to heading north to safer pastures in their own country.

The Philippines doesn’t recognize Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah on the northern tip of Borneo, which is why Manila refuses to dispatch a permanent envoy to look after its citizens who fled decades of fighting in the Southern Philippines. To establish a consulate in Kota Kinabalu would be tantamount to recognizing Kuala Lumpur’s legitimate claim over the state, so to sidestep this awkward diplomatic impasse Malaysia pays a peppercorn annual rent for Sabah to Kiram.

Akjan’s claim was widely reported in East Malaysian newspapers but ignored in the West, where the pro-government press would have preferred this story simply went away.

Akjan is a Malaysian citizen and has been a member of the powerful United Malays National Organization (UMNO) for two decades. The question of how he actually secured Malaysian citizenship keeps coming up, and he was also once detained under the Internal Security Act for fabricating identity cards for immigrants in Sabah.

There are also religious overtones. Traditionally, Sabah is predominantly Christian and has always enjoyed close relations with the local Muslim population, which practices a more relaxed form of Islam than what is usually observed in West Malaysia or the Southern Philippines.

Ajkan is one of perhaps one to two million refugees or illegal immigrants—nobody really knows the actual figure—who fled civil war in Mindanao. Nearly all are Muslims, and they make up a substantial part of the total population, estimated at about 3.1 million.

They weren’t invited into Sabah, but were still welcomed given the harsh realities created by conflicts involving ASG, communist insurgents, Moro rebels and hard-line Islamic militants. But the sheer numbers have fueled speculation among opposition politicians that the ruling Barisan Nasional federal government—of which UMNO is the lead party—has organized the registration of illegal immigrants as citizens so they would then vote for the ruling coalition.

UMNO endured its worst performance so far in the 2008 and federal elections and an early poll has been widely touted. Most believe BN and UMNO’s future will hinge on how the East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah vote.

Unlike most refugees, Akjan lives well. He isn’t forced to live in one of the United Nations initiated Kampungs for refugees, which are a true blight on the world body. Instead, he has a regular home in Likas, a middle class Muslim suburb just north of Kota Kinabalu.

The 53-year-old father of 28 has had four wives (one is deceased) and holds a range of financial interests in construction, transport and oil distribution. He also has a PhD in business studies from Preston University in the United States.

In taking the throne, Akjan has stressed the Sulu Sultanate is not a part of the Philippines and never has been, which isn’t exactly what the people of Sabah want to hear (he claims them, too). This kind of talk has fueled the conflict in the Southern Philippines for more than four decades, and turned much of Sabah into a refugee camp.

The Sulu Sultanate once stretched from Sulu to the Palawan islands, the Spratlys and Basilan to parts of Borneo, including Sabah. The Sultan of Sulu obtained Sabah from the Sultan of Brunei as a gift after helping to suppress a local insurgency. The British later leased Sabah and transferred control over the territory to Malaysia in 1963 when Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore joined the Malaysian Federation, supposedly as equal partners with West Malaysia.

That should have been where the matter ended.