MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines has asked Malaysia to extend by “several days” the grace period it has given to armed followers of the sultan of Sulu to leave Sabah peacefully.
Malaysian security forces were set to end the standoff on Wednesday as the group ignored last-minute attempts by Malaysian and Philippine authorities to get them to leave the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu town peacefully and return to Sulu.
The group, led by Agbimuddin Kiram, a brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, remained defiant and had rejected the latest request by President Aquino and Malaysia’s emissaries, although three deadlines given to them were extended, with the last ending on midnight Wednesday.
There were reports that military troops had replaced the police forces encircling Tanduao, but the fresh Philippine request for an extension of the grace period may have delayed action to round up the sultan’s followers.
President Aquino appealed to Jamalul on Tuesday to order his followers home or “face the full force of the law.”
Aquino reminded Jamalul that under the Constitution, the Philippines renounced war as a policy to assert territorial claims.
The President said he had ordered a study of the Philippine claim to Sabah.
On Wednesday Jamalul told reporters that he was thankful about the presidential order to study the Sabah claim, but resentful of the threat thrown at him.
“What crime did I commit?” he asked.
“I did not order my brother to go to Sabah. It’s their own free will to go there and to settle down there, believing that the area is part of their homeland,” he said.
Jamalul said he was angry with the way the Aquino administration was handling the Sabah question.
“I am angry right now because we are being taken for granted,” he said.
Jamalul’s wife, Princess Fatima Cecilia Kiram, said the family was offended that the President questioned the legality of Jamalul’s reign as sultan of Sulu.
She said Aquino’s questioning the lineage of Jamalul on Tuesday was made out of “ignorance and incompetence.”
“I’m really sad [about] the ignorance and incompetence. But I cannot fault the government for its ill-advised (stand on the Sabah question). They didn’t study their lesson well,” she said.
She said that instead of making threats, Malacañang should send an official representative to the Kirams and start the formal talks with Malaysia.
Come home, we talk
But Malacañang said the President was unwilling to talk with Jamalul as long as the sultan’s followers were in Sabah.
“You don’t hold a gun to my head and negotiate. You know, it’s like you’re putting a gun to my head and telling me, ‘Let’s talk.’ That’s not the way decent people do negotiations. You want us to know your claim, you cooperate,” presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda told a news briefing at the Palace on Wednesday.
“The President has said, ‘Come back home and we will talk.’ But you’re asking me to talk to you while [your] people are in Sabah [and] there’s a [possibility of] violence. That’s not acceptable to us,” Lacierda said.
He said the government could not be faulted if the defiance of Jamalul resulted in violence in Sabah.
“We have sent emissaries. We’ve asked the Malaysians to extend the deadline. We will continue to press for a peaceful resolution, but the ball is in their court,” Lacierda said.
The latest Philippine request for an extension of the deadline went through on Tuesday evening, just as the third extension ended, according to Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario.
“I put through a request for another extension. I said we should be given more time precisely for processing that information, to give the Kirams a chance to think about what the President had said,” Del Rosario said, referring to Aquino’s message to Jamalul that he call his followers home or face the consequences of his action under Philippine laws.
Del Rosario said he did not specify the length of the fresh extension.
“I asked for several days,” he said.
He described the situation in Lahad Datu as “quiet,” probably due to the Philippines’ request for a fresh extension of the deadline.
Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesman Raul Hernandez reiterated the government’s appeal to Jamalul to call his followers home.
“What we hope to happen is that [Jamalul Kiram] will order his people to leave Lahad Datu, take care of their safety, welfare and security because we don’t want anybody to get hurt or to die [there],” Hernandez said.
“The ball is now in the court of the sultan of Sulu and it is his responsibility to make sure that no harm will happen to his people who are in Lahad Datu. And the only way to do this is to order them to withdraw and come back to their homes in Mindanao,” he said.
The government has a ship standing by at Tawi-Tawi to pick up followers of the sultan who will decide to leave Tanduao and return home.
Confusion about the location of the vessel placed it off Sabah waters, but the DFA clarified on Wednesday that the ship was still in Tawi-Tawi awaiting diplomatic clearance to sail to Lahad Datu.
Del Rosario himself said Malaysia had yet to respond to the Philippine request to clear the ship to dock at Lahad Datu.
Military steps in?
Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, one of the government’s emissaries to the Kiram clan, said Wednes he was verifying reports that military troops had replaced Malaysian police in Tanduao.
He said that if the information was correct, it meant Malaysia was set to end the standoff by arresting Agbimuddin and his group and deporting them.
Hataman said the Aquino administration wanted to avoid bloodshed, but the Kirams continued to reject appeals to them to leave Sabah peacefully.
He said that if the Kirams ended the standoff peacefully, they could expect the government not to take any action against them.
But the Philippine National Police chief said on Wednesday that Jamalul’s followers would be immediately arrested if they returned from Sabah with their firearms.
PNP Director General Alan Purisima said the police were “on top of the situation” and had sent teams to secure the senior members of the Kiram family.
Purisima said the PNP was also monitoring the movements of the supporters of the Kirams to prevent an escalation of the tension in Sabah.
“We are preventing more people from going to Sabah to ease the tension. The problem is Kiram’s followers went there carrying firearms,” he said.
If they returned still carrying their firearms, they would be arrested immediately, he said.
“They will be charged with illegal possession of firearms and [for violating the election gun ban]. They can be arrested at once since the crime is being committed in the presence of law enforcers,” Purisima said.
Set to end standoff
Malaysia’s Deputy Police Inspector General Kahlid Abu Bakar said security forces might carry out the forced deportation procedure within 24 hours from Wednesday.
“We are set to end the standoff,” he told the Malaysia Chronicle newspaper.
Gunshots were heard in Tanduao, according to reports published in Malaysian newspapers Wednesday.
The reports said Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib heard the gunshots.
But Hamza said the gunshots did not come from the security forces surrounding the village.
“They may be aimed at animals or warning shots [from the Tausug],” Hamza said, referring to Agbimuddin and his group.
Ready for attack
Hamza confirmed that military units had joined the security forces encircling Tanduao in preparation for the arrest of the “intruders.”
But he said there was no actual order yet to proceed with the arrest of the group from Sulu.
Hamza said the security forces would never strike a compromise with Agbimuddin’s group.
In a phone conversation with the Malaysian newspaper The Star on Tuesday, Agbimuddin said his group was ready to face an attack.
“We are fine. We expect the Malaysian forces to attack today. We are ready to defend ourselves, we are not afraid,” Agbimuddin said.
Asked why he thought the group would be attacked, he replied: “Because it is shown on TV and was on the radio that the deadline is over. We are not afraid because we know we are right. This is our land.”
Asked if he was not afraid as he had only about 30 armed men, Agbimuddin said: “We are prepared, we are waiting. We will not attack (but) we will defend ourselves.”
Open to negotiations
In an interview with Radyo Inquirer 990AM on Wednesday, Agbimuddin said he was open to negotiations with the Malaysian government to end the standoff peacefully.
“We really want negotiations, so long as our rights are not taken away from us,” Agbimuddin said in Filipino.
Reacting to President Aquino’s threat to arrest those responsible for the crisis and bring charges against them, Agbimuddin said: “Why should we be arrested? What crime did we commit? We believe we have committed no crime under Philippine laws, as we are doing what we believe is right. I believe there is no law against fighting for what is right.”—With reports from Frances Mangosing and Maila Ager, Inquirer.net; Julie Alipala and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao; and The Star/Asia News Network