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Feb 26, 2013 | 15:26 GMT

6 mins read

Malaysia, Philippines: Ethnic Tensions Are at the Center of a Standoff

Malaysia, Philippines: Ethnic Tensions Are at the Center of a Standoff

A recent standoff involving armed Philippine nationals in Malaysia illustrates the region's lingering and at times confusing ethnic and territorial composition. Malaysian security forces are preparing to forcefully deport a group calling itself the Royal Sulu Army, which has occupied a small town in Sabah state for more than two weeks. Manila and Kuala Lumpur have worked together to end the standoff peacefully, but the Royal Sulu Army leader in the Philippines has insisted that they are not leaving even though Kuala Lumpur's deadline for doing so has passed. Should the situation be resolved violently, it could affect the upcoming Malaysian elections and may trigger an uprising by related ethnic militants in the Philippines and Malaysia.

From Feb. 9 to Feb. 12, as many as 180 ethnic Tausug from the Philippines landed on the coast of eastern Sabah at Masjid Lama, near Lahad Datu. One of myriad ethnic groups spread across Southeast Asia, the Tausug are centered in Jolo in the Sulu Archipelago but stretch from Malaysia and Indonesia on Borneo to Mindanao in the southern Philippines. The territory comprises what was once the Sultanate of Sulu, and the group has claimed it does not need to leave Malaysian territory because it is still part of the Sultanate. It has demanded recognition for its Royal Sulu Army, and it has called on Kuala Lumpur to refrain from deporting to the Philippines any Suluks, or Borneo-born Tausug.

Headed by Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, the brother of the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, the group reportedly includes some 25-30 men armed with assault rifles and grenade launchers. After the group took control of a local village, Malaysian security forces cordoned off the area and stopped all boat traffic to prevent the arrival of reinforcements. The security forces have also blocked supplies to the group; reports indicate that food is running out and that disagreements among the members are surfacing.

For its part, Manila is cooperating closely with Kuala Lumpur to seek a peaceful resolution to the standoff. The Philippine navy has deployed at least six ships around the Sulu Archipelago to stop any reinforcements for the Royal Sulu Army and sent a ship to Sabah to remove its members peacefully.


But Malaysian security forces are growing impatient. The Malaysian National Security Council has now taken charge of finding a nonviolent solution. This comes after Feb. 24, when a deadline for the group to leave passed, and Feb. 26, when a tacit extension for Manila to negotiate the group's removal ended. The Philippine government is concerned that a violent confrontation between the Royal Sulu Army and Malaysian security forces could undermine the final stages of the Malaysia-mediated peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao. In the worst-case scenario, there is fear it could also trigger a revival of militancy by the Moro National Liberation Front, which signed a peace accord with Manila in 1996.

Malaysia, Philippines: Ethnic Tensions Are at the Center of a Standoff

Malaysia and the Philippines

To understand these connections, it is valuable to consider briefly the history of the Tausugs. They are traditionally maritime people who claim Islam came to the area by the 1300s and that the first Islamic sultanate of Sulu was established in the mid-1400s by a member of the Hashemite family and a direct descendent of the Prophet Mohammed. In the 1870s, the sultanate leased its territory in Sabah on Borneo to the British, and the British passed the territory on to Malaya. Malaysia still pays a nominal "rent" to the Sulu Sultanate — currently less than $2,000 per year — and this is being shown as proof by the current Sulu Sultan that even Malaysia recognized Sulu sovereignty over Sabah.

In 1899, the ancestors of current claimant Jamalul Kiram III, began to hold the Sultanate. But in the mid-1930s, a series of rival claims to the rightful line emerged, and at roughly the same time the U.S. and Philippine governments stopped recognizing the Sulu Sultanate. Even today, Kiram is only one of dozens of claimants to the title, and two other members of the Kiram family, Fuad Kiram and Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, also claim the title to the 35th Sultan of Sulu. All claim Sabah as Sulu territory, but most, aside from Jamalul Kiram III, are not supporting the occupation of Sabah by the Royal Sulu Army.

There are a few theories circulating as to why Jamalul Kiram III acted now. He could be trying to reinforce his claim to the sultanate (Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram claimed the title again in September 2012). Otherwise, he and his supporters could be upset that he was not included in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The new peace accord will again shift administrative authority in the southern Philippines, impacting not only the Tausug, but also the Moro National Liberation Front. By acting now, Jamalul Kiram III's supporters are demanding recognition of their role in any future settlement from both Kuala Lumpur and, more important, from Manila. This may also relate to another motive: the renegotiation of the rent price paid annually by Malaysia, which could also reopen the question of sovereignty over Sabah.

Historically, the Philippine government has wavered in its approach to Sabah, at times secretly backing Moro militants for an attempted reclamation of the territory, at times making public diplomatic claims and at other times letting the dispute lay dormant. The actions by the Royal Sulu Army are bringing about discussions in the Philippines once again as to whether the government should pursue its claim to northern Borneo, but aside from pledging to study the issue, Manila is remaining cautious. It is not seeking to raise another territorial issue since it counts on Malaysia to help broker the final phases of the peace accord with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and as it faces a more serious sovereignty challenge from China. Kuala Lumpur, too, has little interest in raising tensions with Manila, particularly if those tensions could undermine regional efforts to slow the spread of Islamist militancy through the various ethnic groups in Southeast Asia.


But the Malaysian government feels it cannot wait much longer to oust the Royal Sulu Army. Kuala Lumpur believes it must demonstrate its clear authority over Sabah and dissuade any future attempts to reclaim it. With national elections later this spring, the ruling United Malays National Organization wants to highlight its resolve, but it also wants to avoid any military or police action that could turn ugly.

This is why it continues to offer more time to Manila to try to convince the group to leave Sabah peacefully. If a peaceful solution can be reached, then the ruling party will have proved itself capable of managing a complex territorial and ethnic issue with its neighbor. If it cannot, there is a risk that opposition parties can exploit the incident to make gains in the upcoming elections.

More troubling for both Kuala Lumpur and Manila, however, is the potential for a violent outcome to lead to a resurgence of militancy across the Sulu Archipelago and into both Sabah and Mindanao. The former head of the Moro National Liberation Front, Nur Misuari, has previously called on Manila to readdress the question of Sabah ownership and has threatened to take the issue to an international tribunal.

Misurai reportedly is related to the royal families of the Sulu Archipelago, and given his professed dissatisfaction with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front peace talks, he may take the opportunity to restart militant operations in the Philippines and in Sabah. Were that to happen, the entire peace framework in the southern Philippines would unravel, taking with it Philippine-Malaysian relations.

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