The group of Filipinos contend they are the rightful descendants of the southern Philippine sultanate of Sulu.
Note: This article is from the Guardian.
Malaysian forces have attacked an armed Filipino group staked out in Borneo, where a three-week standoff has left at least 27 dead and threatened diplomatic security in a region rich in both resources and history.
Fighter jets launched air strikes on Tuesday morning before ground troops raided the hideout of about 180 Filipinos who sailed to eastern Sabah 24 days ago in an attempt to “claim back” land they say is rightfully theirs.
Armed with assault rifles, the group boarded ferries and speedboats in the Philippines on 9 February and landed in the Malaysian fishing village of Lahad Datu in eastern Sabah state, where they contend they are the rightful descendants of the southern Philippine sultanate of Sulu – which laid claim to Sabah several hundred years ago and, the gunmen allege, still does. Malaysia denies the claim.
Tuesday’s air and ground strikes follow a weekend gunfight that left 27 people dead, including eight Malaysian police. Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, who had been criticised at home for being too lenient when the gunmen first landed on the island, said the attacks were “the right action in order to preserve the pride and sovereignty of this country”.
It is still unclear, however, how successful the assaults may have been: Malaysian media claim that 20 gunmen’s bodies were recovered afterwards, while Philippine media allege no one was hurt in the strikes.
The group had demanded greater compensation from Malaysia for their claim to Sabah. Malaysia currently pays a nominal fee to the Sultan of Sulu for historical purposes, a sum the sultan allegedly takes as proof that he – and his followers – still lay claim to the land. Sulu is a string of islands between Sabah and Mindanao island in the southern Philippines.
Although it is unknown why the gunmen chose this moment to raid Sabah, they may have been following a November decree by the sultan that his followers “resettle Sabah”, said south-east Asia expert Carl Thayer of the Australia Defence Academy. Thayer said the sultan’s loyalists number in the hundreds “among the several hundred thousand Filipinos [already] living in Sabah”.
It is believed 800,000 Filipinos call Sabah home, many of whom moved to the region in the 1970s to escape violence in Mindanao.
The recent standoff has left Sabah battered by some of the worst violence Malaysia has seen in decades, which has already disrupted the island’s extensive palm oil operations and threatened to curb investment in energy and infrastructure projects.
It has also potentially endangered diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Philippines. The Malaysian government has been forced to temporarily close its embassy in Manila because of continued protests while Filipinos living in Sabah have reportedly been segregated and are living under close watch by Malaysian authorities.
The standoff could not have come at a more awkward time politically: Najib and President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines face forthcoming elections, and each has been criticised for mishandling the situation. Both have also blamed the opposition for creating a political situation that would destabilise the ruling party before the polls.
For Aquino, whose party faces congressional elections in May, there are fears the Muslim vote in Mindanao will be lost after he described the claims by the sultan’s supporters as a “hopeless cause”. Aquino also said the insurgency was part of a wider conspiracy to derail a peace deal signed last year between his government and Muslim rebels in the Philippines, noting: “The family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram could not possibly have settled on this course of action alone.”
Analysts, however, paint a picture of a Muslim group isolated from the recent peace process and desperate to be recognised by the national government.
“The Sultan of Sulu has never been known to be violent, he has never gone this far,” said Filipino journalist Glenda M Gloria, author of Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao. “You have to understand the government was signing a peace agreement with MILF [Moro Islamic Liberation Front], the main stakeholder, so I think it’s not so much a conspiracy as a lack of focus on the side issues related to the peace process.”
In Malaysia, the standoff is in addition to an already tense situation in Sabah, where the ruling UMNO party is being investigated in a citizenship-for-votes scandal whereby immigrants were allegedly given identity cards in exchange for political support.
The scandal could lead Najib’s coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for the past 50 years, lose to the opposition in Sabah – “long considered a ‘fixed’ deposit by the incumbent BN [Barisan Nasional] government”, said Malaysia election strategist Kian Ming Ong.
While analysts expect Malaysia and the Philippines to resolve the situation quickly, no one is yet sure what will happen to the gunmen – or how many of them still remain after the raid. Analysts believe most will not surrender and will become a guerrilla unit.
“They know the terrain – probably more than the Malaysian security forces do – and it’s going to complicate matters more for Malaysia in terms of security,” said Gloria.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010