ZAMBOANGA CITY- A weeks-long stand-off between Filipino gunmen and Malaysian police threatens to morph into a wider conflict in the ethnically divided Malaysian state of Sabah. On Tuesday, the Malaysian military launched air strikes and ground operations against a group of around 200 Filipino militants encamped near the town of Lahad Datu who claimed to be a royal militia acting on orders from the Sultanate of Sulu.
The military assault came in the wake of a March 2 ambush in the eastern coast town of Semporna, approximately 150 kilometers from Lahad Datu, where a different group of militants killed six
policemen and badly mutilated some of their bodies. According to an informed source, militants sent an e-mail message to Malaysian police authorities that included images of two beheaded policemen after the incident.
At least 30 people have been killed in armed exchanges since the Filipino militants first arrived in Sabah on February 12 to assert a centuries-old claim to the area by the now defunct Sultanate of Sulu. The Malaysian government announced late on Wednesday that authorities had the situation under control with the deployment of seven army battalions to the area. But as the Philippines-based Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rebel group wades into the crisis, the potential is high for more clashes.
A high-ranking MNLF official who spoke on condition of anonymity with Asia Times Online claimed his group had already dispatched thousands of ethnic Tausugs from the southern Philippine areas of Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi to reinforce members of the Sultanate of Sulu's royal militia. He claimed that many of them had already successfully slipped through a Philippine navy blockade put in place to defuse the situation and that more were on the way in response to Tuesday's air strikes.
Ethnic Tausugs, known officially as Suluks in Malaysia, are an ethnic group in both the Philippines and Malaysia who hail originally from Sulu. The Tausugs, known for their fighting prowess, identify politically with the ethnic Moros who through the MNLF and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) have fought and negotiated for decades with Manila for autonomy over the territories they control.
The MNLF has an increasingly shaky peace deal in place with Manila. It notably was not a signatory to and publicly opposed last year's landmark Framework Agreement with the MILF, which was brokered by Malaysia. The reigning Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III attended the signing of last year's government-MILF peace agreement but was reportedly piqued that he was not given greater ceremonial recognition, according to a source familiar with the situation.
The Sultanate of Sulu ruled the contested area in Sabah for centuries before it was transferred by British colonialists to Malaysia in 1963. At the time the Philippines contested the transfer, claiming that the British North Borneo Company leased rather than purchased the eastern part of Sabah from the sultanate and thus did not possess the authority to transfer ownership to Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur continues to make modest "cession" payments to the heirs of the sultanate, in apparent recognition of the territory's contested absorption.
Quiet quid pro quo
In an apparent non-disclosed component of the MILF peace deal, Manila agreed to drop its historical claim to territories in Sabah in exchange for the establishment of a Philippine consulate in Sabah, according to a source familiar with the provision. Revelations of the that concession to Malaysia reportedly infuriated Kiram and the MNLF leadership, according to the same source. Manila has cooperated with Kuala Lumpur throughout the crisis and pressured Kiram to recall his followers.
Kiram, who resides in Manila and reportedly suffers from diabetes, has so far defied those official demands while his family members have issued new threats. After Malaysia's assault on his rag tag royal militia, Princess Celia Fatima Kiram warned of a "long civil war" in Sabah. Kiram's apparent strong links to the MNLF, once the country's largest rebel group with 15,000 under arms and increasingly disenchanted with Manila, give weight to that threat.
MNLF leaders have spoken out forcefully in the wake of the assaults. MNLF Islamic Council Committee Chairman Habib Hashim Mudjahab said on Tuesday that he could no longer hold back his people from traveling to Sabah to defend their ethnic brethren from Malaysian forces. "We are hurt and many of our people, even non-combatants are going to Sabah to sympathize with the Sultanate," Mudjahab said.
MNLF political chief officer Gapul Hajirul warned that the signs of a civil war are already apparent in Sabah, referring apparently to the militant ambush on police forces in Semporna. The attack indicated to some observers that an underground Tausug movement is already organized and undertaking insurgent operations in Sabah. "I am afraid there will be civil war in Sabah because thousands of Bangsamoro (Filipino Muslims) are residing in Sabah," Hajirul said without elaborating.
MNLF leader Nur Misuari told reporters on Tuesday that if Malaysia targets Filipinos based in Sabah his group would consider it "tantamount to a declaration of war." He also warned Philippine President Benigno Aquino that any attempt to arrest Kiram would plunge the country into chaos.
Malacanang has accused Misuari and former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales convinced Kiram to send his followers to Sabah to undermine the government's peace deal with the MILF. Gonzales and Misuari, who would apparently have different motivations for sabotaging the MILF-government peace deal, have both denied the allegations.
Malaysia's assault has already sparked nationalistic fires in Manila. Ethnic Moro and left leaning groups which are usually ideologically opposed protested in unison this week in front of the Malaysian embassy. The groups accused Aquino of giving Malaysia a free hand to attack the Sultanate's followers after the group refused to lay down their arms and return to the Philippines.
"If not for the Philippine government's inaction to protect national interests, the Sabah stand-off would not have ended in bloodshed," said Yusof Ledesma of the Coalition Supporters for the Sultan of Sulu, one of the protest groups.
The crisis is also making political waves in Malaysia ahead of what are expected to be hotly contested general elections. Sabah is a potential swing state that both Prime Minister Najib Razak and opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim are angling to win at the polls. Before Tuesday's air assault, Anwar attacked Najib in a public statement, saying the premier had failed to defend national sovereignty and the Malaysian people's security.
The economic stakes of sustained instability in Sabah would be equally high. According to Facts Global Energy, a private energy consulting company, Sabah has about 1.5 billion barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas, proven reserves which contribute around one-quarter of Malaysia's total annual oil and gas production. Malaysia's foreign invested oil and gas sector provides more than 40% of government revenues.
Noel T Tarrazona is a journalist and faculty member of the Universidad de Zamboanga Master of Public Administration Program. He may be reached at email@example.com. Asia Times Online Southeast Asia Editor Shawn W Crispin contributed reporting from Bangkok.
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