Supporters of Filipino claims over North Borneo are again threatening to send armed men to the East Malaysian state of Sabah if Kuala Lumpur refuses to negotiate with Manila, raising fears of a repeat of the violence that erupted there almost a year ago.
The threats came from Sulu Sultanate spokesman Abraham Idjirani, who said the sultanate’s strategy to reclaim Sabah in a peaceful way remains yet warned there might be no choice but to again send troops into the East Malaysian state.
“That is the possibility, if cessation of hostilities will not be resolved,” he said.
His remarks came after Esmail Kiram II, a newly crowned sultan – of which there have been many – urged the government of President Begnino Aquino to pursue negotiations with Malaysia over his family’s claims of ownership over Sabah.
Those claims are based on historical deals where the islands were leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878. It subsequently passed to Malaysia.
Ownership was never negotiated, however, ancient and indigenous claims are not recognized by international courts when determining sovereign borders, thus limiting any future talks over sovereignty in the region to bilateral talks between Malays and The Philippines.
Esmail became Sultan in October last year following the death Jamalul Kiram III, aged 75.
“Owing to historic and legal facts, it is now incumbent on President Benigno Simeon Aquino III to do what he has to do if our president reckons the inhabitants of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, the Zamboanga peninsula and Palawan as citizens of the Republic of the Philippines,” Kiram II said recently.
Much of the dispute is also about money. Malaysia has traditionally paid a peppercorn rent to the sultans, who once ruled the area, of about $1,500 a year. However, sources have previously told The Diplomat that much more had been paid in secret to keep the peace.
Those payments stopped after the Philippines rejected a Malaysian request to have the issue dealt with as an addendum to peace talks held between Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front aimed at ending much of the conflict which plagued the troubled south for decades.
It was at that point Jamalul sent hundreds of well-armed mercenaries across the maritime border to Lahad Datu – a hotbed of illegal immigrants from the southern Philippines – on Sabah’s east coast, most carrying Malaysian identity papers.
More than 70 soldiers were killed by Malaysian forces while the rest melted in with the ethnic Filipino locals and refugees who control the surrounding water villages, raising fears that the insurgency could again turn bloody on the sultan’s orders.
Further threats have arisen since then but for most Sabahans and millions of others who live on North Borneo, which is shared between Malaysia and Indonesia, the long-absent sultans and their clans hold little relevance in the modern age. In fact, given the death toll that arose at the start of the insurgency, Sabahans would be justified in wondering why Jamalul was not jailed.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.