Sabah Insurgency: A Political Bonus for PM Najib Razak

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Sabah Insurgency: A Political Bonus for PM Najib Razak

A tricky situation offers a possible electoral out for the Malaysian prime minister.

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.