Reports coming out of the Southern Philippines and East Malaysia paint a worrying picture. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has announced that is has mobilized 4,000 militiamen hidden among the million-plus illegal immigrants in Sabah to defend their own ethnic Tausugs against a Malaysian crackdown on illegal immigrants.
The maritime border between the two countries is extremely porous and is a well-documented transit point for jihadists, pirates, human traffickers and asylum seekers who have challenged the authorities and upset attempts at portraying the area as a paradise for well-heeled tourists.
MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said his forces in neighboring Malaysia would act only in self-defense against any attack from Malaysian forces after Kuala Lumpur announced it would target half-a-million illegal immigrants for repatriation in a three-month operation. The majority of the immigrants in question have fled the Philippines, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Nepal and Vietnam.
Illegal immigrants have lived and worked in Sabah, often for a pittance, after fleeing more than four decades of civil war in the Southern Philippines. The MNLF was the lead rebel group which thrashed out a peace compromise with Manila in the mid-1970s.
A splinter group known as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) had carried on the fight until a peace deal was reached with the government of Philippine President Begnino Aquino last year. Over the decades, the MNLF, MILF and Manila have refused to recognize Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah and Sarawak.
Traditionally, Malaysia has paid a peppercorn rent to the sultans that once ruled Sabah and the surrounding areas. It was supposed to be a small amount of about $1,500 a year. Malaysia has always insisted on being involved in any peace negotiations between rebels and Manila.
However, sources involved with the peace negotiations said that Kuala Lumpur has made secret payments amounting to much more, though they declined to say by how much. These financial inducements were stopped when Manila – during the recent peace talks – refused to recognize Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah and Sarawak.
That prompted Jamalul Kiram III, to send hundreds of his mercenaries across the border in March to raise havoc resulting in the deaths of more than 70 people. Incidentally, sources said the dead soldiers sent by Kiram were also carrying Malaysian identity papers.
Fontanilla added that MNLF fighters were acting alongside troops under the command of the Sultanate Army led by Agbimuddin Kiram, Jamalul’s brother, who he says is waging an armed struggle to reclaim their ancestral land in Sabah. He claimed that five countries were supporting his rebels, known as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Movement in Malaysia, with shipments of arms underway.
He is not the only sultan.
The Sulu Sultanate once stretched from Sulu to the Palawan islands, encompassing the Spratly Islands and the province of Basilan, as well as 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.
Malaysian authorities have rubbished the MNLF claims but have gone on high alert nevertheless because of recent security breaches by the MNLF back across the border in Zamboanga City.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.