The followers of the sultan of Sulu holed up in a village in Sabah, eastern Malaysia, could be flushed out Monday after the expiration on Sunday of a 48-hour extension of the Malaysian deadline for them to leave and the failure of Malacañang’s back-channel efforts to solve the standoff peacefully.
The Philippine government sent a humanitarian ship to Sabah Sunday night to bring home the women and children among the sultan’s armed followers holed up in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town and encircled by Malaysian security forces, but the sultanate said no one would go with the mercy mission.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement that the ship would sail from Bongao, Tawi-Tawi, before midnight and stand by off Lahad Datu as Malaysian authorities talked with the sultan’ followers.
The DFA said it informed the Malaysian Embassy last Saturday that the Philippine government was sending a ship to Sabah. Malaysian foreign minister Anifah Aman told AFP, however, that he had “yet to be informed on this matter.” Ministry officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
The vessel will sail for 11 to 12 hours and is expected to arrive in Lahud Datu at noon Monday. Aboard the mercy ship were Filipino Muslim leaders, social workers and medical personnel, Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario said, stressing that the government “was deeply concerned” about the presence of women among the group.
Del Rosario called on “the entire group to go back to their homes and families, even at the same time, we are addressing the core issues they have raised.”
“Please do so for your own safety,” he added.
An Inquirer source said Philippine officials hoped the Malaysians would hold their fire as the mercy mission was going on “for the sake of innocent lives.”
Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya said in a text message to the Inquirer: “Arrangements have been made with Malaysian authorities for the entry of the humanitarian mission to Lahad Datu.”
“Our priority is the safety and security of the women and other civilians in the group. We thank the Malaysian government for allowing the ship’s entry and their shared concern for the well-being of the civilians,” Malaya said.
An Inquirer source said the ship would also pick up any of the Sulu sultan’s armed followers who would choose to go home.
No one’s going
The Sulu sultanate said Sunday night that it was not notified about the humanitarian mission.
But Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesman of the sultanate, said the Sulu sultan was thanking President Aquino for the humanitarian assistance.
Idjirani said, however, that the women among the sultan’s followers in Tanduao were “determined to stay with their husbands.”
“They won’t leave,” Idjirani told the Inquirer in a phone interview.
Del Rosario had requested Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman to work out a four-day extension of the Feb. 22 deadline to give government emissaries more time to convince Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to order his 250 followers in Tanduao to stand down and return home.
But all the Malaysian government was willing to grant was a 48-hour extension, which expired Sunday with the back-channel contact the Aquino administration had hoped could convince Jamalul to call his followers back home still in Manila.
The contact, Sultan Bantilan Esmail Kiram III, a brother of Jamalul, had changed his mind about going to Sabah to convince the sultan’s followers to lay down their arms and return home.
It remained unclear on Sunday why Esmail changed his mind about helping end the standoff without bloodshed.
Officials said, however, that communication lines with Esmail and the sultan remained open. They said the Malaysian government preferred to talk with Esmail because Jamalul was a hardliner.
Feeling left out of the peace negotiations between the administration of President Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Jamalul sent a group of followers, including 250 armed men and some women and children, to Sabah to press his clan’s claim to the territory formerly known as North Borneo.
The group landed in Tanduao village on Feb. 9, drove out the residents, and occupied it to signify a presence that stood for ownership of the land that belonged to the Sulu sultanate but passed on by Britain to Malaysia in 1957 after granting independence to its colony once known as Malaya.
Malaysia leases Sabah from the descendants of the Sulu sultan for 5,300 ringgit, or P77,000, a year, a token sum that may be one of the reasons for Jamalul’s decision to order the occupation of the territory.
Jamalul’s followers, led by his brother Agbimuddin Kiram and styling themselves as the “Royal Security Forces of the sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo,” are reportedly running out of food supplies and foraging around Tanduao for root crops and vegetables as a food blockade thrown around the village by the Malaysian authorities has begun to bite.
Jamalul asked the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) on Feb. 20 to help his followers whose lives are threatened by the food blockade, but the UN agency had not announced a response as of Sunday.
A senior diplomat blamed the crisis on the “irresponsibility and recklessness” of the heirs of the Sulu sultanate.
The diplomat said Jamalul’s order to his followers to hold their ground despite the presence of women and children among them showed the heirs’ “irresponsibility and lack of concern for civilian lives.”
It is “illogical and irrational” for Jamalul to say that his followers’ objective is peaceful when they are armed and intruding into the territory of a neighboring country, the diplomat said.
“If there is bloodshed, it will be on the Kirams’ hands and not on the government’s,” the diplomat said.
The diplomat described the heirs’ Sabah decision as “quixotic and reckless.” By going ahead with it, they have placed at risk the peace process with the MILF and all Filipinos’ expectations of peace and development in Mindanao, the diplomat said.
Taking claim to UN
The Kirams called a news conference on Friday to say that they wanted to elevate their claim to Sabah to the United Nations and to the International Court of Justice.
President Aquino has ordered a study of the Sabah claim, including a look through its history and the documents covering the lease agreement between the Sulu sultanate and Malaysia and an assessment of its validity.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said on Sunday that the claim would be treated separately in the future.
For now, she said, the government’s main concern was to ensure the safety of the Sulu sultan’s followers in Sabah.
Diplomats were reportedly at a meeting Sunday as the extension of the deadline for Agbimuddin’s group to leave on its own neared.
As of press time on Sunday night, there was no word from the foreign office about the result of the meeting.
Not too long
In Malaysia, Foreign Minister Anifah was reported as saying the government was “hoping the standoff will end peacefully with the latest deadline.”
Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters that he wanted the 2-week-old standoff to “end sooner than later” without bloodshed.
But he said the extended period should not be too long and his ministry would leave it to the security forces to conduct an operation to end the standoff.—With reports from The Star/Asia News Network, Christine O. Avendaño and Agence France-Press