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Background Briefing: Sabah: Sultan of Sulu Strikes Claim Carlyle A. Thayer March 5, 2013

[client name deleted] 1. The claim by the Sultan of Sulu to Sabah seems to be a historical one dating back some 300 years. Why is the group interested in taking the land now? Are many of the Sultan’s supporters ‘political refugees’ from the Marcos period? ANSWER: There are two possible explanations. The first relates to a decree made on November 1, 2012 by the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, mandating that his followers resettle in Sabah. This led to the landings on the east coast of Sabah during the period 9th-12th February and the occupation of Lahad Datu village. The second explanation, which is less likely because no mention has been made of it by the Sultan’s supporters, is that the so-called Royal Army of Sulu was marking the forty-fourth anniversary of the Jabidah massacre in March 1968. This massacre is often cited as the spark for the Muslim rebellion against Marcos. This is also referred to as the Corregidor Affair. The Marcos regime secretly began training Muslims to invade Sabah to recover lost territory. When the Muslim recruits expressed discontent at their conditions and lack of pay, they were executed and disposed of at sea to prevent word of their existence from leaking to the press. During the Marcos era several tens of thousands of Muslims fled to Sabah. Subsequently Malaysia deported many back to the Philippines, especially after the 1997 Asian financial crisis. Malaysia government sources report that 446,000 Filipinos have been deported from Sabah since 1990. Sources vary on the size of the Filipino community in Malaysia with estimates of up to 570,000 including 447,000 undocumented workers without valid work permits or residence cards. It is too early to establish whether the members of the Royal Sulu Army who were killed or who still remain in Sabah were former political refugees. Given the ages of those reported killed it is more likely they were from the Sultan’s clan and were motivated by loyalty to him. It also appears that there are some hundreds of the Sultan’s loyalists among the several hundred thousand Filipino living in Sabah

2 2. Can these 'sultan descendants' be considered Islamist terrorists? Are they seeking an Islamic way of life that has been denied them in the Philippines? Are they likely to take over other parts of Malaysia? ANSWER: No, the Sultan’s descendants are not Islamist terrorists. They are Muslims. They seek the return of ancestral land. Initial Muslim opposition to the Marcos regime came under the umbrella of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). These were Muslim aristocrats who were quite willing to negotiate with the Philippine government. It was their willingness to do so that caused more militants to break away and from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Abu Sayaaf Group. The Philippine government has never classified the MNLF as a terrorist group. Malaysia gave MNLF supporters sanctuary and over time this group became integrated into Sabah society. The current supporters of the Sultan of Sulu who lodged themselves in Sabah in February are mainly interested in having their ownership over Sabah confirmed. They point to the payment of “lease” or compensation money by the Malaysian government as proof that their ownership is recognised. They have no territorial designs elsewhere in Malaysia. Their lifestyle reflects the courtly life of the Sultan’s court and mainstream Islam. 3. Relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur have been healthy to date -- with Malaysia paving the way for peace between the Philippines and MILF last year. How could this Sabah standoff derail that? ANSWER: The killing of supporters of the Sultan by Malaysian security forces could spark some elements of the MILF or other Islamist extremists to seek revenge. The MILF, however, is unlikely to support such action especially as the Aquino government has called for a peaceful settlement of the current situation. The MILF represents a different socio-economic class than supporters of the Sultan and their interests are overwhelmingly if not exclusively focused on gaining autonomy in the southern Philippines. 4. Could this standoff affect Prime Minister Najib's re-electon this year, given that Sabah has already been home to the citizenship-for-votes scandal? Does Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the opposition coalition, stand a chance of gaining votes if Najib handles this situation badly? ANSWER: The very large number of Filipinos – 65,000 by one count - who have been given Malaysian passports as “political refugees” are content with the status quo. They are not a support base for the Sultan. As long as Malaysian security forces exercise some discrimination between the various communities and maintain local security Najib should not suffer any electoral backlash. Najib must show leadership and firm resolve to protect Malaysian sovereignty to retain support on peninsula Malaysia. He must be seen to punish those who killed Malaysian police. Najib has come under attack by the Opposition for the heavy-handed approach employed by the security forces. Rumours that opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim is secretly cooperating with the opposition in Sabah may cut in Najib’s favour.

3 5. With reports that Malaysia just bombed the Islamic hold-out in Sabah, how will this impact on Malaysia-Philippines relations? Malaysia already closed their embassy in Manila (albeit temporarily). This recent development cannot be good for the bilateral relationship. ANSWER: Malaysia’s escalation of violence against the Sultan’s supporters through air strikes could spark anger against any collateral killing of innocent civilians. On March 2, for example, after Malaysian security forces killed a local Muslim religious leader and members of his family, enraged local Filipino Muslim residents overran the local police station and took four hostages. The Aquino government has made repeated representations to Malaysia to exercise restraint. Aquino has spoken to Najib, Foreign Secretary Del Rosario flew to Kuala Lumpur to meet with his counterpart Anifah Aman, and Filipino diplomats have been sent to Sabah to provide consular and other assistance. Malaysia’s use of excessive force will cause a strain in bilateral relations. President Aquino is under intense domestic pressure to stand up for the interests of overseas Filipino workers and not to abandon the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. Aquino is more likely to give priority to the former than the latter. President Aquino has dispatched the BRP Tagbanua to provide medical support and to transport supporters of the Sultan back to the Philippines. President Aquino has also called on the Sultan’s supporters to return home and surrender unconditionally to authorities.

Suggested citation: Carlyle A. Thayer, “Sabah: Sultan of Sulu Strikes Claim,” Thayer Consultancy Background Brief, March 5, 2013. Thayer Consultancy Background Briefs are archived at