After four weeks of bitter exchanges, the government and the sultanate of Sulu sat down on Monday to discuss the “disengagement” of the armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III from Sabah.
Interior Secretary Mar Roxas and Sultan Bantilan Esmail Kiram II, brother of Jamalul, met behind closed doors in Roxas’ office in Camp Crame, Quezon City.
It was the first official meeting between representatives of the government and the sultanate since a standoff between Malaysian security forces and an armed group led by Jamalul’s brother Agbimuddin Kiram started in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town in Sabah on Feb. 12.
The standoff erupted into violence on March 1, and 61 people—53 sultanate followers and eight Malaysian policemen—have been killed in skirmishes between the two sides.
Neither Roxas nor Esmail disclosed details of their discussion, but both indicated satisfaction with how the meeting went.
“Let’s just say it’s about disengagement,” Roxas told reporters after the two-hour meeting.
Asked to elaborate, Roxas said the Malaysian government had declared it would not order a halt to the military operations unless Agbimuddin’s fighters laid down their arms.
“They (the Kirams) were asking about the process and mechanism. That’s one of their concerns,” Roxas said.
Asked if “disengagement” meant “withdrawal” or “surrender,” Roxas said: “We should not use strong terms in times like this. It would be better for us to just wait for answers as we convey their questions (to the President).”
“Our meeting is only to find ways and means to resolve our problem in Sabah,” Esmail said.
“We are satisfied with what we have discussed (with Roxas), but we will have to wait for the message of President (Aquino) after Secretary Roxas informs him about our meeting,” Esmail said.
Esmail said his older brother knew about his meeting with Roxas, as he told the sultan about it on Sunday.
Roxas, who called the Kirams stubborn in a recent radio interview, said he met representatives of the clan in Zamboanga City last week.
He said the Kirams wanted an audience with him and he agreed to talk to them on the condition that Jamalul approve the meeting.
“We don’t like to get different messages. So they assured me that the meeting had the blessing (of Jamalul),” Roxas said.
Playing down accusations that the administration mishandled the Sabah crisis, Roxas said government emissaries had been talking to the Kirams.
“Any kind of talk is better than no talk. So the talks are continuing,” Roxas said.
“I deny that there were no discussions held. There [had been talks at] different levels since (the Sabah crisis) started,” he said.
The Kirams called a news conference after the meeting.
Esmail defended President Aquino during the news conference, saying the government never abandoned the Kirams.
“I don’t believe President Aquino is not concerned about our situation. (His concern) was evident when he sent emissaries to talk to us,” said Esmail, who was appointed “acting sultan” by elders of the sultanate.
Esmail said the meeting with Roxas showed the Kirams’ willingness to cooperate with the government in ending the violence in Lahad Datu.
Agbimuddin not budging
Esmail said the Malaysian government had invited him to go to Sabah to talk to Agbimuddin and help in the negotiations for a peaceful resolution of the standoff.
But Agbimuddin was adamant about staying and pressing the clan’s claim to Sabah.
“[He] told me he was firm in his decision to stay in Sabah because it was his,” Esmail said.
“And I was afraid that something might happen to me,” he added.
A second option presented to the family, he said, was to send an advance party to Malaysia to ensure the safety of the Kirams and Philippine government officials who would go with them.
“A plane was ready for us. Look at how [Mr. Aquino is helping us]. But … the Malaysian government … has given no response,” Esmail said.
“It’s not our fault [that the negotiations bogged down],” he said.
Esmail said the decision to lay down arms and leave Sabah belonged to Agbimuddin.
“It’s hard to just prod him to come back. He went there on his own,” he said.
Esmail said Agbimuddin never told him about his Sabah plan.
“He said their purpose was only to live there because that is our homeland … and their bringing weapons was only for security,” Esmail said.
Esmail told the news conference that the elders of the sultanate had barred Jamalul’s daughter, Princess Jacel Kiram, from speaking to journalists about the Sabah crisis.
“The elders have [decided] that only Abraham Idjirani is authorized to give statements on the matter,” he said.
He noted that Jacel was a woman and could be “emotional.”
“Many of the things she says are not about the subject matter, which is how to resolve the situation in Sabah,” Esmail said. “Princess Jacel has been openly criticizing the Aquino government [for its handling of] of the standoff in Sabah.”
Esmail said the reports of police abuses against Filipinos in Sabah were nothing new, as Filipinos had been undergoing abuses in the territory long before the standoff began.
“They have been treating the Filipinos there not as human beings. What they are doing is un-Islamic and are acts of nonbelievers of Islam,” he said.
It appeared that the Kirams did not feel exactly the same about talking with the government.
While Esmail sounded well-disposed to talking with the government, the sultan’s side of the clan sounded like it distrusted the government.
In a separate news conference at the Kirams’ house in Taguig City, Idjirani, the sultanate’s secretary general and spokesman, said Jamalul did not order Esmail to see Roxas.
Esmail, he said, asked Jamalul for permission to see Roxas to “tell the government exactly what the position of the family is” on the Sabah crisis.
Idjirani confirmed that Esmail would brief Jamalul on his discussions with Roxas.
Princess Jacel was there, not looking like she had been barred at all from speaking for the clan.
She said the meeting between Esmail and Roxas was a “good gesture” on the part of the government.
She described the meeting between her uncle and Roxas as “exploratory talks.”
“Somehow they are reaching out, [we hope], to resolve this peacefully,” she said, stressing that the ultimate decision belonged to her father.
“It was offered to us. We welcome the gesture of Malacañang. It’s good even if this moved (the issue) only a centimeter forward. At least we now see that there’s movement,” she said.
Lahad Datu quiet
No fighting was reported on Monday between crack Malaysian troops and Agbimuddin’s group.
Filipino diplomats said it was “quiet” in Lahad Datu.
The Borneo Post newspaper reported that Agbimuddin’s group attacked the government troops in Tanjung Batu village on Sunday, wounding two soldiers during the eight-hour gun battle.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib was quoted as saying there were no signs that the “terrorists” were going to surrender and that they had called a ceasefire as reported in Manila.
Hamza reported that 22 bodies of Agbimuddin’s fighters found by security forces in three areas in Semporna town had been taken to hospitals in Lahad Datu and Tawau.
He did not say, however, when the Sulu fighters were killed, but he said 16 of the bodies were found in Tanjung Batu, four in Simunul village in Semporna, and two in Tanduao.
The lack of definite information does not make an adjustment of the casualty figure possible.
As foreign journalists are barred from the battle zone, Malaysian casualty reports cannot be independently verified.—With reports from Nikko Dizon in Lahad Datu, and Allan Nawal, Inquirer Mindanao