Ties between the two countries are almost certain to be strained further before they can begin to heal, as the Philippine government has talked openly in recent days about the prospect of filing a case with the International Court of Justice.
On the ground in Sabah, relations between nationals of both countries have already started to deteriorate rapidly. Idjirani says the violence in Semporno took place after Malaysian security forces went to the area to search for key figures from the Sulu Sultanate. After Malaysian forces reportedly killed two imams who have lived in the area for decades – but who are originally from the islands of Sulu and Tawi Tawi within the sultanate – gunmen then retaliated and killed five Malaysians, he said.
“There are organized, patriotic efforts by people in this area,” Idjirani adds.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Amid rising tensions, news reports this week say that some Malaysian bosses are firing their Filipino workers – many from areas within the sultanate – amid a crackdown on Filipinos in Sabah.
The original group reportedly scattered after Tuesday’s assault and Malaysian security forces in the area have doubled. Yet, there is little sign the security situation will improve soon.
Meanwhile, on Tawi Tawi and Sulu and in the west of Mindanao, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) – a former rebel group which signed a ceasefire deal in 1996 but which retains limited arms – is reportedly on alert and is standing by to support the sultan. MNLF leaders, however, have denied direct involvement in the ongoing standoff.
Both MNLF and the sultan’s inner circle have indicated that they feel increasingly marginalized by the Philippines ongoing peace process, which has directly involved just a handful of the 13 Muslim groups that occupy large swathes of the southern island of Mindanao.
A few days after the Aquino administration signed an October peace framework with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), another insurgent group in Mindanao, MNLF attempted to call on supporters in the city of Davao to rise up, an effort which ultimately failed.
Since then, MILF has taken the lead in fleshing out a peace deal with Manila that is expected to result in a newly calibrated autonomous region in Mindanao called Bangsamoro.
With Malaysia acting as mediator – the latest chapter of the deal was signed in Kuala Lumpur last week – critics in the Philippines are increasingly adamant that Malaysia is far from objective in resolving this complex political problem. Malaysian soldiers on the ground monitoring a ceasefire in Mindanao were advised on Saturday to limit their movements amid fears of retaliation by supporters of the sultan.
Earl Parreno, a political analyst and member of the board of trustees of the Institute for Political and Electoral Reforms, a Manila-based think-tank, says the sultan’s recent gambit makes sense if he is to seize the initiative within the evolving power dynamics of the southern Philippines.
“It’s the perfect time for the sultan to address it now, before the peace process goes into more detail,” Parreno told The Diplomat.
But will the Sultan’s gambit work? Efforts to reclaim the eastern half of Sabah look increasingly like a guerilla operation and a messy, protracted dispute looks likely.
Kiram has remained defiant since the day his supporters made the trip across the sea. He said: “We are prepared to defend our lives and aspirations.”
Steve Finch is a freelance journalist based in Bangkok. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, TIME, The Independent, Toronto Star and Bangkok Post among others.
Editor's Note: We have updated the text to reflect new information.