Since early last week, a group of presumably 100 to 200 Filipinos, some reportedly armed, has been occupying a small town close to Lahad Datu in the Malaysian state of Sabah. They demand the recognition as representatives of the Sultanate of Sulu – an Islamic state which once ruled over parts of the southern Philippines and northern Borneo – and assert to have historical claims to Northern Borneo (northern part of Sabah). The legal status of the Sultanate remains unresolved and the origins of the dispute date back to 1878, when it either ceded or leased (depending on the translation used) some of the islands under its control over to the British North Borneo Company. Once the territory of the former Sultanate became part of modern-day Malaysia, the Malaysian government continued with the annual payments of 5.300 ringgit (around €1300) to representatives of the Sultanate’s former royal family, the Royal House of Kiram.
Members of the group involved in the stand-off identify themselves as the “Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu”. Soon after their landing, the Malaysian police and armed forces surrounded the group. Malaysian officials are trying to negotiate a peaceful withdrawal back to their homes in the Philippines in close cooperation with the Philippine government, which has joined the Malaysians in urging the group to return to their country, as their journey was not authorized.
The real causes of this incursion are still unclear, but two suppositions have been made. On the one hand members of the royal family are trying to pressure the Malaysian government into increasing the yearly rent payment for renting North Borneo. The Malaysian government sees this transfer as a “cession” payment, but the sultanate regards it as “rent”. On the other hand the negotiations which led to the Mindanao Peace Process also play an important role: The recently concluded Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which provides for the creation of a new political entity in the southern part of Mindanao, did not satisfy all Muslim groups in the conflict-torn island. After being left out in the negotiations of the Mindanao peace process, the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu decided to assert their ancestral claims to Sabah by the actual occupation of that area. Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, Crown Prince of the Sultanate of Sulu, affirmed that their claim to Sabah was an “integral and essential aspect” of any peace agreement with any armed group in Mindanao. He describes the incident “not as an act of aggression but a journey back home” and feels betrayed by the Philippine government for not being included in the framework agreement. “Until the (Philippine) government includes the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, no lasting and significant peace will come to Mindanao,” Abraham Julpa Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson of the Sultanate of Sulu, said in an interview.
According to a Philippine government official, the Mindanao Peace Process will not be affected by this incidence in Sabah. The EU is a member of the International Monitoring Team in Mindanao, which monitors the peace agreement of 2001 between the Government of the Philippines and MILF, and is a major development party in poverty alleviation in Mindanao. Malaysia is a mediator in the Mindanao Peace Process, which successfully negotiated the framework agreement between the two parties.
Sulu became a sultanate without a kingdom, as it is now a province within the Republic of the Philippines, according to Julkipli Wadi, a scholar at the Institute of Islamic Studies at the University of the Philippines. Once a powerful Islamic kingdom in the South-East Asian region, its influence started to crumble during the British and Spanish colonisation, followed by Malaysian and Philippine independence. Malaysia took over the area in the 1960s, even though the Sultanate of Sulu saw this as a breach of the 1878 agreement. The claim of the Philippines on Sabah is based on the historic ownership of the descendants of the sultanate. Currently, the Philippines' claim on northern Sabah is dormant, but domestic pressure to give a clear stance on the issue by the Philippine government is growing. First stirrings of change are showing: The Philippine government has already ordered a study of the Sabah claim issue.
For more information on the Mindanao Peace Process, please see: