MANILA, Philippines—Amid the escalating conflict in Sabah, governors from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao on Monday appealed to Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to ask his followers to peacefully return to the country.
The five ARMM governors– Abdusakur Tan of Sulu; Sadikul Sahali of Tawi-Tawi; Esmael Mangudadatu of Maguindanao; Jum Akbar of Basilan; and Mamintal Adiong Jr. of Lanao del Sur– also said the use of force was not the way to pursue the sultanate’s claim to Sabah, and implored it to follow international rules and protocols in fighting for their cause.
They said the Filipinos working quietly in Sabah are being displaced or deported, and even those living in the nearby Mindanao provinces are affected.
They also urged President Aquino to work for a peaceful resolution to the sultanate’s claim to Sabah, and taking history into account.
Tan said the governors, as fellow brothers in Islam of Kiram, intend to meet with the sultan to discuss the issue with him.
Sahali, for his part, said that if the Philippine and Malaysian governments would allow it, the governors would want to talk to the leader of the sultanate’s “royal army,” now battling it out with Malaysian forces after landing in Lahad Datu, Sabah weeks ago to press the sultanate’s claim to the territory.
In a press conference on Monday, the ARMM governors said they are concerned about the violence in Sabah that has cost the lives of their Muslim brothers, and the rising tension has affected so many innocent people.
“We appeal to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to call on his followers to peaceably come home,” the governors said in their statement, read during a press conference.
“We are calling on all parties to exert more effort to resolve this standoff in a peaceful and honorable manner,” they also said.
They said violence was not the solution to the Sabah dispute, even as they stressed that they respect the sultanate’s claim to the territory.
“While we understand, respect, and honor the claims of the heirs of the sultanate of Sulu to Sabah, we urge Sultan Kiram to take into account that aggression and violence are not the way to advance this cause. We further ask that he and his family abide by international rules and protocol in pursuing their claim,” they said.
According to them, the violent encounters in Sabah villages have been displacing some of the 600,000 Filipinos quietly living and working there, forcing them to flee to ARMM or causing them to be deported. But the region may not have enough resources to feed and house them.
At the same time, the conflict has been affecting the people in ARMM by driving up the prices of commodities, usually sourced from nearby Sabah, they said.
Tan said the governors have convened the expanded peace and order council, which adopted the resolution addressed to the Malaysian and Philippine governments and appealing for a cessation of hostilities. He also said they are calling for leniency for the Filipinos working in Sabah.
As for reports that the sultanate’s supporters were going to Sabah on their own to reinforce the sultanate’s armed followers there, Tan and Sahali said they had not monitored any such movement in their provinces.
Tan said he thinks the sultanate’s supporters must return to the country first before talks with the government could commence.
He also said he had learned that prior to the eruption of violence in Lahad Datu, there had been talks between the sultanate’s royal forces in Sabah and “concerned individuals” who were persuading them to come back.
During the talks, he said, the representative of the sultanate’s forces in Sabah put forward the suggestion that they be allowed to return to Sulu and Tawi-Tawi without being arrested or held liable. But before this could be resolved and any agreement reached, things took a violent turn.
A gunfight between the sultanate’s army and Malaysian forces first erupted Friday in Lahad Datu, leading to casualties on both sides. In subsequent days, the tension spilled over to Semporna where some of Kiram’s relatives reside.