The Sultan of Sulu has asked the United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR) to help his followers who are running out of provisions after two weeks of holing up in a village in the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah.
Sultan Jamalul Kiram III wrote the UNCHR in Manila on Feb. 20, asking for protection for 250 members of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo whose lives, he said, were threatened by a food blockade thrown by Malaysia around the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu town, Sabah.
Jamalul has also written to Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah of Brunei asking for help in resolving the standoff in Tanduao peacefully.
The UNCHR was furnished with a copy of Jamalul’s letter to the sultan of Brunei, also dated Feb. 20.
A deadline given by Malaysia to the armed group led by Jamalul’s brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, to come out and submit to deportation expired on Friday, but the Philippines asked the Malaysians to give the sultan’s followers four more days to end the occupation of Tanduao peacefully.
But that was before Jamalul announced at a news conference in Manila on Friday that he had ordered Agbimuddin’s group to stand fast until recalled.
News of Jamalul’s defiance slowed down the Malaysian decision on the Philippine request for an extension of the deadline.
Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman notified the Home Ministry of the Philippine request on Friday but Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said he would leave the decision to Anifah.
It’s up to police
Hishamuddin said, however, that he would leave it to the police to conduct an operation to end the standoff with the armed group in Tanduao.
“The country’s sovereignty and the pride of the people of Sabah must not be taken for granted,” Hishamuddin told reporters on Saturday.
Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson for the Sultanate of Sulu, said the blockade around Tanduao had reduced Agbimuddin’s group to eating root crops and vegetables found in the area.
The Malaysian authorities do not allow Tausug residents of Lahad Datu to enter Tanduao to prevent food from reaching Agbimuddin’s forces, Idjirani said.
Agbimuddin remains in contact with Jamalul, Idjirani said. The two men last talked by phone on Saturday, with the younger Agbimuddin being counseled by the sultan to stay calm, Idjirani said.
The sultan, he said, also instructed Agbimuddin and the “royal security forces” to keep their muzzles down, a military term meaning carrying rifles with the muzzles pointed to the ground to signify no hostile intent.
Idjirani told the Inquirer by phone that the sultan wrote a letter to Prime Minister Najib Razak four days ago to assure the Malaysian leader that the sultanate’s followers “came to Sabah to live in peace.”
Jamalul assured Najib that the sultanate’s forces would not initiate violence but would defend themselves if attacked, Idjirani said.
As of yesterday, Idjirani said, Jamalul’s orders to Agbimuddin remained unchanged: Hold your ground.
“It’s still as is,” Idjirani said.
The administration of President Aquino refuses to intervene, as the standoff has to do with the Sulu sultan’s heirs’ claim to Sabah, part of the Sultanate of Sulu and formerly known as North Borneo.
Malacañang believes Jamalul’s action is aimed at sabotaging the peace talks between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The Palace reportedly suspects that the opponents of the peace process are using Jamalul to scuttle a preliminary peace deal between the government and the MILF, among them the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the followers of former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo and the President’s uncle, Jose “Peping” Cojuangco and his wife, Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, whose plan to run for governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) in 2011 went to naught after Congress postponed the regional election and synchronized it with this year’s midterm elections to give Mr. Aquino time to introduce reforms in Muslim Mindanao.
The MNLF has neither confirmed nor denied aiding Jamalul but its leader, Nur Misuari, has publicly opposed the preliminary peace agreement between the Aquino administration and the MILF.
The MNLF has said that among the members of Jamalul’s “royal security forces” are MNLF fighters.
The allies of Arroyo are silent.
The Cojuangcos issued a press statement on Saturday saying President Aquino had cleared them of involvement in the Sulu sultanate’s Sabah action.
According to the statement, Mr. Aquino texted his uncle Jose “Peping” Cojuangco belying reports that he believed the couple had a hand in Jamalul’s decision to send his followers to Sabah to establish a presence there.
“Uncle Joe, we are looking for who is instigating them. Neither you nor Aunt Ting [has] been mentioned in any report to me,” the President’s text message said, according to the press statement.
The “them” in the message refers to Jamalul and his followers, whose action could endanger other Filipinos living in Sabah.
ARMM Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman said he was trying to reach Jamalul to ask the sultan to call back his followers, as their occupation of Tanduao could adversely affect the thousands of other Filipinos living in Sabah.
Sabah’s proximity to southern Philippines makes it accessible to Filipinos from Palawan, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Thousands of Filipinos cross to Sabah without passports and Malaysian authorities, eager for trade and manpower for industries in Sabah, have tolerated them for years.
But the intrusion into Sabah of an armed group led by a brother of the Sulu sultan could lead to a crackdown on undocumented Filipinos in Sabah and expulsions could rattle the economy in southern Philippines.
Hataman said he had talked with some members of the royal clan and asked them to help resolve the standoff in Sabah.
There were reports in Zamboanga on Saturday that Jamalul was going to consult his followers on what steps to take next.
Major Malaysian newspapers published reports on Saturday quoting Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as saying on the second day of a visit to Sabah that Kuala Lumpur was “doing everything possible to work out a peaceful solution” to the standoff. With reports from Julie Alipala and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao; and The Star, Asia News Network