MANILA, Philippines - The more than 100 fully armed Filipinos holed up since Wednesday in a remote coastal town in Sabah were on a mission to press the claim of the Sultanate of Sulu on Sabah, an official of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) said yesterday.
“They went there because they wanted to go back to their homeland Sabah, which is part of the Sultanate of Sulu,” said Habib Mujahab Hashim, MNLF central committee member and chairman of the Islamic Command Council.
“However, they were rounded up by the Malaysian security forces because close to 100 of them were armed,” Hashim said, citing reports he received from the field.
He said there were more than 200 Filipino Muslims involved in the standoff. He stressed the armed men were not detained but were merely invited for questioning.
He said the group was sent back to Tawi-Tawi “after hours of negotiation.” It was not clear as of press time if the group had indeed left the secluded coastal village of Lahad Datu some 500 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu.
A ranking military official said MNLF chairman Nur Misuari orchestrated the standoff to attract the attention of the Philippine government and the international community.
“It has something to do with Misuari’s continuing claim of Sabah being part of the Philippines. Misuari just wants to show off. The MNLF may have forged a peace agreement with the government but Misuari has not given up on his claim of Sabah,” the military official who declined to be named said.
He said the so-called Royal Sultanate Army began to recruit members in the early 2000s.
“The following years they never gave the Philippine government any problem until this standoff in Sabah. The Royal Sulu Sultanate Army has been behaving well since then, until they went to Lahad Datu and declared they have the right to stay in Sabah,” the source said.
The source also linked the Sabah standoff to MNLF’s attacks on Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Patikul, Sulu.
“It was even what we call in the military an acoustic war as no bodies of the dead turned up but only sounds of weapons being fired,” The STAR source said.
He said Misuari attempted to seek refuge in Sabah after his men launched attacks in Zamboanga City.
“But always the Malaysian government turned him over to the Philippine government,” the source said. “That is why Misuari would always be bitter against Malaysia.”
Foreign affairs officials said they were informed by Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman yesterday morning of the ongoing negotiations with the armed men, who identified themselves as members of the “royal army” of the Sultanate of Sulu.
In a press briefing, deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said they were still verifying information regarding the standoff. She said that contrary to allegations by Malaysian authorities, the Filipinos were not armed based on information from the Department of National Defense.
“We are trying to ascertain the facts that are attendant to the story. The Philippine embassy in Malaysia had already dispatched our police attaché to that particular area to see what’s happening and we continue to monitor the situation,” Valte said.
She also said the Philippine government is ready to extend whatever legal or humanitarian assistance those involved in the standoff might require.
“As a general rule, it is the duty of the government to help extend assistance to any Filipino abroad, wherever they may be. At this point, however, we would like to ascertain the facts first,” she said.
The Philippines has a standing claim on Sabah, which is part of the Sultanate of Sulu leased to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878.
In 1963, Britain transferred control of Sabah to Malaysia. The Sultanate of Sulu protested the handover, saying it was a violation of the Sabah Lease agreement of 1878.
The arrival of the armed group was a prelude to the filing of a petition before the United Nations for the “decolonization” of Sabah by the Sultanate of Sulu, a lawyer with links to the sultanate said.
He said the sultanate should first show proof that it is occupying the territory in question before filing a UN petition to reclaim it.
“The Sultanate of Sulu wants to file their petition next month when the 50-year lease of the British government on the island expires,” he said.
“I believe the presence of the Sultanate royal army is to bolster their claim that they have already re-occupied their ancestral land,” he said.
He said Malaysian authorities may have them arrested but such action may only confirm their physical presence in the territory.
The Bureau of Immigration (BI), for its part, said it was trying to determine if the Filipinos involved in the standoff passed through the bureau’s three border crossing stations in Bongao, Tawi-Tawi.
“I will still have to check with our Immigration Regulation Division if there were any reports forwarded to them regarding this information,” said BI spokesperson Ma. Antonette Mangrobang.
Mangrobang raised the possibility that the Filipinos had reached Sabah on speedboats. Sabah is less than an hour from Mindanao by speedboat.
If they had used a speedboat, Mangrobang said they might have departed from any part of the country’s long coastline and not necessarily from an international seaport.
If such was the case, “we would not be able to monitor because our borders in the southern backdoor are so porous. The only international port in the area is in Zamboanga,” she said.
Don’t create trouble
Cagayan de Oro City Rep. Rufus Rodriguez, for his part, urged the Filipinos involved in the standoff not to start trouble in the territory.
“They should not create trouble. They should not give Malaysia the impression that they are rocking the boat in Sabah. The Malaysians have been our friends. In fact, they have been helping us resolve the problem of Muslim separatism in the south,” he said.
Rodriguez, president of the Christian Democratic Party, said Malaysia hosted the series of talks between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that led to the recent signing in Malacañang of a historic framework agreement for peace in Mindanao.
He said the armed men who claim to be part of the royal army of the Sultanate of Sulu should resolve their problem peacefully with the authorities in Sabah.
Rodriguez, one of the authors of the Philippine Baselines Law enacted in 2009, said Congress did not include Sabah in the definition of the country’s territory in such law “due to the fact that Malaysia is occupying it.”
“We have to accept the reality that Malaysia rules Sabah, though we have a dormant claim to the island. We would have elicited protest from Malaysia against our baselines law had we included Sabah in our territory. Besides, our law would not have complied with UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea),” he said.
He said only the disputed Spratlys group of islets off Palawan and Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal near Zambales were treated as “regime of islands” that belongs to the Philippines.
“The United Nations and the international community have accepted our baselines law,” he added.
For the chairman of the House committee on national defense and security, Philippine authorities should apprehend the still unidentified Filipino armed men as soon as they return to the country.
Muntinlupa City Rep. Rodolfo Biazon said that while the identities of the armed men or their affiliations were not yet clear, he said he was inclined to believe that they were militants fleeing government security forces in Mindanao.
“The government should be really, really interested in the identity, status and nature of these armed men, and if our authorities conclude that their existence constitute a threat, and their activities and weapons illegal, then our security forces should take the appropriate action against them,” Biazon told The STAR. – With Paolo Romero, Jess Diaz, Evelyn Macairan, Edith Regalado, Perseus Echeminada, Cecille Suerte Felipe