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News Analysis: Standoff in Sabah could derail peace process in Mindanao

MANILA, Philippines (Xinhua) - Even before the Philippine government and the secessionist Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) could sign a final peace accord, an armed group of Filipinos claiming to be the royal armed forces of the Sultanate of Sulu has occupied a coastal town in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The standoff in Tunduao, Lahad Datu town in Sabah, between the armed Filipinos and the Malaysian police has continued over the weekend.

The Malaysian town is just one hour by speedboat from the town of Simunul in the province of Tawi-Tawi, the southernmost tip of the Philippines.

A report in the Daily Inquirer, a leading newspaper in the Philippines, said that the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu have decided to press their claim to Sabah in the island of Borneo after they were left out in the peace process between the government and the MILF.

The report quoted Sulu Sultanate Crown Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram as saying that the government appeared to have ignored their stand that their claim to Sabah should be made an " integral and essential" aspect of any peace agreement with any armed group in Mindanao.

Abraham Julpa Idjirani, secretary general and spokesman of the Sultanate of Sulu, said the decision to show not just physical presence but actual occupation of Sabah came late last year, shortly after the Aquino administration signed a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF.

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In October last year, the government of Philippine President Beningo Aquino III and the MILF signed a framework agreement that would end the decades-old Muslim insurrection in Mindanao by the creation of a new political entity called Bangsamoro.

Idjirani said that before the signing of the agreement, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process invited the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to what was supposed to be a consultation on a peace deal with the MILF.

He said he was asked to give a lecture on the stand of the Sultanate of Sulu at a forum held at the University of the Philippines College of Law.

"We thought finally the government of President Aquino wanted a complete and comprehensive resolution to the peace, security and economic problems of territories in Mindanao by consulting with us. But it was just talk," Idjirani said.

"The framework agreement was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They just pretended to consult us," he said.

Rajah Mudah said that the present government in Manila and the previous governments were not interested in their claim and that was why they decided to act on their own.

"What we did was not an act of aggression but a journey back home," Rajah Mudah said.

Reports from Kuala Lumpur said Malaysian security forces had surrounded the Filipinos, whom they believed were a faction of Muslim rebels unhappy with a peace deal with the administration of President Aquino.

Rajah Mudah said he and his group were not arrested but admitted that they were surrounded by Malaysian police forces.

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) here said that Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifa Aman had already assured Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario that Malaysia would respect the rights of the Filipinos in the Sabah standoff.

The statement said the Malaysian government had resorted to " negotiations to encourage" the Filipinos "to leave peacefully."

Both the Philippine military and the Malaysian military had established that the Filipinos' activity in Sabah had no approval from the Philippine government, the DFA said.

"In this regard, we therefore urge these concerned individuals to return to their homes and families," the DFA said.

What is happening now in Lahad Datu in Sabah is the direct offshoot of the former claim of the Philippines over much of the eastern part of Sabah, which was formerly known as North Borneo prior to the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

The Philippines, through the representation of the Sultanate of Sulu, claimed that Sabah was only leased to the British North Borneo Company and Sultanate's sovereignty over the territory was never relinquished.

Malaysia, however, considered this dispute as a "nonissue" as there was no desire from the people of Sabah to be part of the Philippines or of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Even before Malaysia was federated in 1963, the Philippines had already sent delegations to London reminding the British Crown that Sabah belonged to the Philippines.

As of 2004, the Malaysian Embassy in Manila had been paying cession/rental money amounting to $1,500 per year to the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate, which was started by the British government and later assumed by the Malaysian government.

The heirs of the Sulu Sultanate consider this rental as proof that they are indeed the rightful owners of Sabah.    

 

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