ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines—Acting Governor Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao said on Wednesday, information reaching him indicated that members of the Malaysian police had pulled out of Tanduo village in Lahad Datu, where the so-called Sulu “royal army” had encamped for days now, and had been replaced by Malaysian soldiers.
The fresh piece of information reached the ARMM governor as the Sabah Police Commission confirmed that a series of gunfire was heard from the area being “occupied by the foreign intruders” although these were allegedly not from the Malaysian side.
“We still need to verify this information but that was the latest news we got,” Hataman, however, said.
He agreed that if his information was correct, it indicated that Kuala Lumpur was poised to end the Lahad Datu stand-off by forcibly deporting Agbimuddin Kiram and his armed followers, numbering about 180.
Agbimuddin Kiram, younger brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, set off for a “homecoming” to Sabah on February 12, to assert the erstwhile monarchy’s claim over the resource-rich territory.
The “homecoming,” which Jamalul himself has ordered, has caught international attention, revived the question of who owns Sabah, and nearly cause a diplomatic crisis between Kuala Lumpur and Manila.
Hataman said as much as the Aquino government wanted to avoid bloodshed, the Kirams had continued rejecting appeals for them to leave Sabah.
Hataman said if the stand-off ended peacefully and members of the “royal army” had come home, the Kiram family could expect that the government would not take further action against them.
Malaysia’s Deputy Police Inspector-General Datuk Khalid Abu Bakar said Malaysian security forces might carry out the forced deportation procedure within 24 hours from Wednesday.
“We are set to end the stand-off,” he told the Malaysia Chronicle.
Gunshots were heard in Tanduo on Wednesday, according to reports carried by Malaysian newspapers.
Quoting Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib, the Malaysian newspapers reported on their online edition that Hamza had personally heard the shots fired.
“Yes, we heard gunshots,” Hamza was quoted as saying.
But he quickly added that members of the Malaysian security forces, who had surrounded the area being occupied by Kiram and members of the Sulu “royal army,” had not fired any shot since the stand-off started.
“(B)ut I dare say they were not from security forces. They may be aimed at animals or warning shots (from the Tausugs),” Hamza said.
Hamza, meanwhile, said the Sabah police was closing in on the area being occupied by the Sulu “royal army” to “ensure that nobody could escape and enter the area.”
He said the police would be going by the books and would use “relevant laws to prosecute the foreigners.”
Hamza confirmed that elements of “other Malaysian security units,” including the Army, had started moving in as part of the preparations for the arrest of the “intruders” but stressed that there had been no order for an actual arrest yet or the “use of suitable approach” to end the stand-off.
“We will decide after considering various factors including the surrounding area before acting. When the time comes, there will be no more negotiations. We can charge them in court, it is up to us,” he said, without elaborating on what the “suitable approach” was.
Hamza said the police would never strike a compromise with the Sulu “royal army” when it came to Malaysia’s sovereignty.
He said whatever action Malaysian security forces would take to end the stand-off, Sabah residents had been assured that “security is under control.”
Tanduo, which is sparsely populated by fishing and farming families, is about 130 kilometers from Lahad Datu town.
Commenting on reports that Manila had sent in a ship to ferry members of the “royal army” back to Sulu, Hamza said: “The vessel was still not in Malaysian territorial waters.”
It was expected that the ship would reach Lahad Datu at least seven days from Monday.
Agbimuddin was quoted by The Star Malaysia as saying that none of his men would board the ship back to Sulu and that they would stay in Lahad Datu unless ordered by his elder brother and Sulu sultan, Jamalul III.
Agbimuddin, The Star reported, had admitted they had ignored Malaysia’s warning.
Agbimuddin had said they already expected Malaysian security forces to force them out of Tanduo but they were “ready to defend ourselves, we are not afraid.”
“We are fine…We are not afraid because we know we are right. This is our land,” he was quoted as saying.
Agbimuddin said they would not fire any shot unless the Malaysian security forces come in. “We will not attack, we will defend ourselves.”
Meanwhile, Hamza was also quoted by Malaysian newspapers as having confirmed that seven persons, including a Filipino television journalist, were arrested on Feb. 20, on suspicion of spying for the Sultan of Sulu.
The arrest, Hamza said, was carried out as Kuala Lumpur implemented a ban on journalists covering the stand-off in Lahad Datu.
The arrested Filipino journalist was identified as Jamela Alindogan, Kuala Lumpur-based producer of the English channel of the Arab news network.
Alindogan, Hamza was quoted as saying, was arrested with Al-Jazeera Senior Asian Correspondent Steve Chao, cameraman Mark Giddens, and at least four youth members of the Sabah Progressive Party (SAPP) near Tanduo, where dozens of members of the so-called “royal army” of the Sultanate of Sulu had encamped for nearly three weeks now.
Hamza said Alindogan and the rest of the arrested persons — save for the boat operator — had already been released after they were questioned by the police.
He warned journalists, either local or foreign, against entering Lahad Datu but quickly added that Kuala Lumpur was banning them for their own sake.
Malaysian security forces had cordoned off the area where members of the Sulu royal army had stayed after their “homecoming” on Feb. 12.
“Please let us do our jobs. Our focus is to ensure the safety of the people and we do not wish to see any unforeseen incidences happening,” Hamza said.
Chong Pit Fah, SAPP information officer, has lambasted Malaysian security forces for arresting journalists and for implementing a ban on media coverage of the stand-off.
Chong also questioned the manner by which Alindogan was treated by the Sabah police.
Chong said Alindogan was “accused several times” of working with the royal army despite her showing her press card.
“This is embarrassing for Malaysians. We have a police force which can’t tell the difference between what is dangerous and what is harmless,” the progressive The Malaysian Insider said in one of its editorials.
“How much more do the police want to shame us with this farcical behavior? They can’t chase a group of men from Malaysian territory but they will play rough with a journalist,” the editorial added.