War against Islamic militancy in Southeast Asia has too often been complicated by layers of nationalism, provincial politics and tribal culture. It’s a thorn in Southern Thailand, Indonesia and in particular the Southern Philippines, where peace talks have struggled to accommodate all and end decades of conflict that feeds off of old tribal hatreds.
The importance of the tribes can’t be underestimated, and this was highlighted by a recent appointment among the Sulu clans.
Phugdalun Kiram II has been named as the next Sultan of Sulu, a clan position with pretensions to royal ownership of huge swathes of land including much of Sabah in Malaysia’s far east. He took the helm following the death of Esmail Kiram II last year.
Manila still refuses to accept Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah, thrashed out of negotiations with the departing British colonialists more than 60 years ago.
And when it can, Manila also enjoys poking the Sulu Sultan onto the frontlines of that intractable dispute, if only to stir the pot. Esmail pushed this beyond breaking point three years ago when he launched a cross-straits insurgency into Sabah.
A militia of 235 men from the “Royal Army of the Sulu Sultanate” landed near Lahad Datu on Sabah’s east coast and began a siege of the neighboring area, as the Sultan asserted his ownership of Sabah through a media campaign run from the safety of his home in the Philippines.
The Malaysian military responded with strength, including the deployment of fighter jets and an unprecedented air assault, ending the occupation with 63 people dead from both sides, including civilians.
Sultan Phugdalun Kiram II has declared he will continue the pursuit his family’s claim over the east Malaysian state and he wants an international conference to resolve the issue once and for all.
Though he has written to the Malaysian government outlining his plans, the beleaguered administration of Najib Razak has not responded. Not that it needs to: the Sultan’s claim is an incredulous thought among Sabahans who view the Kirams as self-important Philippine country folk.
Still, this nagging dispute has all sorts of unwanted ramifications. Filipinos living in Sabah desperately need a consulate, but Manila refuses. To put one in Sabah, critics argue, would require Philippine recognition of Malaysian sovereignty.
More importantly, the lawless nature of Mindanao and the islands on the eastern fringes of the Sulu and Celebes seas has enabled local insurgents to mingle with jihadists from Malaysia and Indonesia who fought with the Islamic State, also known as the Daesh.
Like the militants demanding a return to caliphate rule in the Middle East, Islamic militants here are also demanding a caliphate to reign over a Muslim State to be carved out of much of Southeast Asia, including the Sulu Sultan’s turf.
Authorities had feared their return and in mid-January two civilians were killed and another 26 wounded after militants opened fire outside a Starbucks coffee shop and a Western supermarket in Jakarta. It was the first such strike in Indonesia since 2009.
The stakes in this deadly game of terrorism and Islamic militancy are again rising and the presence of another Sulu Sultan pressing his family’s claims are about as welcome as yet another fly in the already soiled ointment. His claims are a sideshow to the main event. But like the many other ethnic and rebel groups that operate in the region, the Sultan and his clan can’t be totally ignored.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt