DIGOS CITY, Philippines—The Sabah standoff, triggered by the Feb. 12 “homecoming” of the followers of Jamalul Kiram III, has rekindled a controversy hounding the royal house of Sulu (Sultaniyyah sin Lupah Sug) for years now: the question of who the legitimate sultan is.
Since the standoff started more than two weeks ago, two more members of the Kiram clan – who both laid claim to the title of the 35th sultan – had come out with differing views on the tension in Lahad Datu.
But amid the conflicting claims on the title, which Jamalul said was rightfully his, Fuad Kiram and Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram agreed with their cousin that Sabah and North Borneo have always belonged to the monarchy.
The Sultanate of Sulu was once one of the world’s influential monarchies.
Until the 1800s since its founding, the sultanate’s territory stretched from Sulu to Sabah and North Borneo and its warriors – who sailed on colorful vintas – were feared for their skills on the use of the kris.
Fuad, who has maintained that his ascension to the helm of the sultanate in 1976 was backed by Sulu’s ruma bichara (council of elders), recognized in a statement posted on his website the legitimacy of the claims of “these people (Jamalul’s followers)” as “the recovery of Sabah from Malaysia is the central policy of the Tausug Sultanate of Sulu for the benefit of his people.”
“Our official policy is the return of Sabah to all of us the nine heirs, including the raa-yat or the people,” Fuad, a son of Sultan Esmail Kiram I (reigned 1950-1974), said.
But unlike what Malaysian authorities had termed as “armed invasion” of Sabah by Tausugs, Fuad said he would have wanted the re-taking of Sabah and North Borneo done “by peaceful means and by peaceful co-existence with others.”
He claimed that even Malaysia – through then Prime Minister Tungku Abdul Rahman – declared during the so-called Manila Accord signing on July 31, 1963 its respect for “the claim of the Philippines over Sabah, even if in the meantime Sabah had already been included in the Federation of Malaysia.”
Aside from the Philippines and Malaysia, Indonesia – which has jurisdiction over some parts of Borneo, also signed the accord.
Fuad said diplomacy and international bodies such as the United Nations could help the heirs of the sultanate reclaim Sabah.
Kuala Lumpur now maintains that the Sultanate of Sulu had ceased to exist and “therefore had no more rights over any piece of land.”
As the stand-off remained on Sunday, Fuad said “our prayers go to our people and the Filipino nation during this time of crisis” even as he asked for sobriety.
“We urge all to be calm and be guided by the spirit of peace and harmony to solve the current Sabah standoff involving over 100 of our people clamoring for the return of Sabah to the Tausugs and the Filipinos,” Fuad said.
He also emphasized that the heirs of the sultanate have not gotten rental payments from Malaysia for years now because the money, coursed through the Malaysian Embassy in Manila, has been handed to the legal counsel of the Sultanate of Sulu – lawyer Ulka Ulama.
When the British handed over Sabah to Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur had agreed that the territory was only being leased to it by the sultanate.
Under the terms of the original “padjak (lease)” agreement, Kuala Lumpur was to pay the heirs of the sultanate 5,000 Mexican pesos each year.
Fuad said Malaysia later changed that figure to RM5,300 per year.
Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, who has insisted on the legitimacy of his succession as the 35th Sultan of Sulu based on former President Ferdinand Marcos’ memorandum order 427 that recognized his father as Sulu ruler, meanwhile, has condemned the order of Jamalul – whom he described as “one of the many self-styled and illegitimate Sultans of Sulu” – to retake Sabah from Malaysia.
Muedzul, a son of Marcos-recognized Sultan of Sulu, Ampun Mohammad Mahakuttah Kiram (1974-1986), said that contrary to being a protector, Jamalul had put the lives of, not only his armed followers, but also women, who joined the Sabah homecoming in grave danger.
He said if there was any accomplishment the homecoming had achieved so far, it was to make Jamalul’s claim to the title legitimate before the eyes of the world.
“They want to assure the people that they are with the legitimate sultan, but the fact is that they are not, because there is only one sultan in Sulu – and that is me,” Muedzul was quoted as saying by major Malaysian newspapers.
Other Malaysian newspapers said Muedzul also reportedly told a Kota Kinabalu radio station that Jamalul’s “act of sending armed followers” to Sabah was “a decision that would never emanate from a wise man.”
“He is against the way that the situation is being handled at the moment because going into another country’s territory with people (who are) armed… we don’t think it is a good idea,” Muedzul’s secretary, Andres Lindholm, said in a separate interview by another Malaysian newspaper.
In a report, the online Free Malaysia Today hinted that the “homecoming” has triggered uproar among residents and officials of Sabah.
One member of the Malaysian Parliament, Abdul Rahman Dahlan of Kota Belud, was even quoted as saying the invaders were “heavily armed Sulu terrorists.”
Abdul Rahman said the Malaysian government “had been busy doing intelligence to understand the terrorists’ movements and what kind of weapons” they have brought.
Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, however, said the terrorist tag on the Tausugs were the result of “speculations and rumors.”
He said Jamalul’s followers were not terrorists or militants but because they were armed, Malaysian security forces had been deployed around them.
He said the Malaysian government knew better.
“I have the correct information and can confirm that most of the speculation is baseless,” Bernama, Malaysia’s official media, quoted him as saying. Kuala Lumpur earlier gave Jamalul’s men 48 hours from Friday to leave Sabah but decided to extend it until Tuesday.
“(I)t is important (that) our action does not lead to bloodshed,” Bernama quoted Hishamuddin as saying.
He also said in an earlier interview by Malaysian media that Kuala Lumpur would be open to negotiations and the participation of “relevant quarters to help us in finding the best solutions to the issue.”
“In any situation, our focus is to solve the issue in the best possible way. This is our modus operandi…our way to save lives. If certain or other quarters feel that they can help those involved in the issue, be rational and cooperate with us, the sooner the issue will be solved,” Hishamuddin said.
In another interview, Hishamuddin, said he was leaving the question of deportation of Jamalul’s followers to Wisma Putra or the Malaysian foreign affairs ministry.
But as of Saturday, Jamalul’s stand, according to his aide Abraham Iribani, was for his followers to remain in Sabah’s Tanduo area amid an earlier warning from Hishamuddin that “don’t delay too much because we have to defend our homeland.”
Malaysian Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin said as of Sunday, state security forces, “including the police, are still able to handle wisely the intrusion by a group of Filipinos in Kampung Tanduo.”