The Royal Army of Sulu Invades Malaysia

About 200 armed Filipinos, followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, entered a town in Lahad Datu district of Malaysia’s Sabah state on February 11, sparking an ongoing conflict with Malaysian security forces that has tensions running high on both sides of Sulu Sea. The men, led by the sultan’s brother, are pressing their ancestral claim to an area of northern Borneo that has been disputed by Malaysia and the Philippines since independence.

Both the Filipino and Malaysian publics have been critical of their respective governments’ handling of the conflict and disapprove of the escalating violence. There are concerns in some quarters that Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia will postpone the date of its highly anticipated general elections because of the volatile environment in Sabah. The province, with its large immigrant population and diverse demographics, is one of the most politically contested areas in Malaysia. So far, it appears that the conflict will not affect ongoing peace talks between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which Malaysia is mediating.

Q1: How has the stand-off developed?

A1: About 200 armed men from the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines arrived in Sabah by motorboat and occupied a town in Lahad Datu on February 11, catching the Malaysian and Philippine governments by surprise. Both governments urged the gunmen to leave peacefully, and Malaysia gave the group a series of deadlines to comply, the last of which ended at midnight on February 27.

On March 1, Malaysian security forces attempted to force the sultan’s followers out of the town. The two sides engaged in a 30-minute shootout that killed two Malaysian police officers and 12 Filipino gunmen. Clashes continued throughout the ensuing weekend, with further casualties on both sides. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib then ordered an air and ground assault on March 5. The escalation of violence failed to drive the Filipino gunmen from Lahad Datu, but it did result in significant casualties. The fighting has killed at least 52 members of the Sulu group and eight Malaysian police officers.

Likely convinced of the hopelessness of his cause following the government’s military assault, the sultan called for an immediate ceasefire on March 7. However, Najib rejected the ceasefire and said it would only be granted if the sultan’s followers lay down their arms.

Q2: What are the roots of the dispute?

A2: According to tradition, the Sultanate of Brunei ceded much of northern Borneo to the then-independent Sultanate of Sulu in the late 17th century in exchange for aid given during a civil war in Brunei. Sulu’s influence waxed and waned in the area until it was conquered by Spain in 1851. Given the overlapping claims of Brunei and Sulu to northern Borneo, the British North Borneo Company signed agreements with both sultanates in 1877 and 1878 ceding responsibility for the area to the company.

Unfortunately, the translations of the agreement of the Sultanate of Sulu did not match perfectly. The English version clearly states that the sultanate was ceding the territory to the British North Borneo Company in exchange for an annual payment of 5,300 Mexican pesos. However, the version in Tausug, the language of Sulu, uses a word whose meaning is closer to lease. The arrangement was inherited by post-independence Malaysia which has continued to send annual payments to the descendants of the sultan of Sulu, insisting that they are indeed payments rather than rent.

Meanwhile, the Philippine government has long questioned the legality of the British North Borneo Company’s agreement with Sulu passing to Malaysia. Manila instead insists that the title to northern Borneo should more properly have passed to the Philippines, of which Sulu is a part.

Q3: How has the Philippines reacted?

A3: In a nationally televised statement on February 26, President Benigno Aquino urged the sultan of Sulu to recall his followers to the Philippines and hold open dialogue with the government about his group’s territorial claims. The president also warned the sultan that an investigation has been launched to address his grievances, as well as a probe into the laws he and his followers have violated with their invasion of Lahad Datu. The Philippines also sent a naval ship to the waters off eastern Malaysia on a “humanitarian mission” to pick up five women and other members of the clan.

Once the violence erupted, Aquino sent Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario to meet with Malaysian government officials and find a peaceful resolution. Justice Secretary Leila De Lima is reported to have been examining the liabilities of the armed followers because Manila does not have an official extradition treaty with Kuala Lumpur. The Philippine police are looking into possible members of the Royal Sulu Army and the degree of their involvement in the Sabah intrusion. There are currently at least 10 Philippine Navy and Coast Guard vessels manning a blockade to prevent any other groups from crossing to Sabah.

Q4: Will this affect larger Malaysian-Philippine relations?

A4: Malaysia and Philippines are close partners on economic and security issues and the relationship between the two governments appears largely unaffected by the conflict. MILF chief peace negotiator Mohagher Iqbal said that the standoff in Sabah will not affect the peace process with Manila. Malaysia is the facilitator for negotiations between the Philippine government and the MILF.

However, people-to-people relations between the two countries could be hurt due to rising nationalist sentiment. Many groups in the Philippines sympathize with Sultan Kiram’s cause and believe that he has been wronged by history. Many are concerned about the 800,000 Filipinos living in Sabah, many of them poor and undocumented, who could be targeted in the assault or deported. The public mood was worsened by President Aquino’s high profile appearances in the media to urge the gunmen to surrender and the revelation that a letter from Kiram to Aquino expressing his dissatisfaction with being sidelined in the MILF peace process was “lost in bureaucratic maze.”

Q5: How does this incident impact the pending Malaysian elections?

A5: If the conflict worsens, some speculate that Prime Minister Najib might use it as a justification to postpone the elections. This is extremely unlikely because many Malaysians would consider it a mere ruse to delay the polls at a time when the ruling coalition’s popularity has been falling. Nonetheless, the public is frustrated by the fact that the Filipino gunmen infiltrated Sabah so easily, which reinforced beliefs among some that Sabah’s immigration and security policies are intentionally lax to allow for easy election-rigging, as suggested by the Royal Commission Inquiry (RCI) on illegal immigrants. On the other hand, if the government is successful in driving the gunmen out, it could boost the ruling coalition’s chances in the elections. Even if the fighting continues, some may rally to the government as a show of solidarity in a time of crisis.

Gregory Poling is a research associate, and Phoebe DePadua and Jennifer Frentasia are researchers with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.

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Gregory Poling, Phoebe DePadua, and Jennifer Frentasia