“They should talk to me directly,” Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III said Tuesday, disowning his brother’s claim that the sultanate had agreed to talk with the government about the “disengagement” of its forces from Sabah.
The sultan’s rejection of talks about withdrawal dashed hopes of his armed followers pulling out of Sabah soon, ending the crisis without further bloodshed.
They faced getting wiped out, as Malaysia, which has declared it will hunt and kill all of Jamalul’s followers who have intruded into Sabah unless they surrender, has not responded to a Philippine notification about the disengagement talks, according to a Malacañang official
Alarmed at Malaysia’s silence, President Aquino has sent Interior Secretary Mar Roxas to Basilan and Tawi-Tawi in hopes of preventing further violence in Sabah, the official said.
The official, who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to reporters about the backdoor negotiations, confirmed that the Philippines had relayed to Malaysia the results of discussions between Roxas and Datu Bantilan Esmail Kiram, brother of Jamalul, for a peaceful end to the Sabah crisis.
In his talk with reporters on Tuesday, Jamalul said there was no negotiation for disengagement.
“I don’t like that,” Jamalul said. “It’s like playing baseball. I’m already in the third base, why would I leave? Why would I pull out?”
Jamalul said there seemed to be a “conspiracy” between Esmail and Roxas for talks between the government and the sultanate without his approval.
Roxas and Esmail on Monday began to explore the “disengagement”—the term they used to avoid using the word “surrender”—of the sultan’s armed followers from Sabah.
But Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and his government had decided to hunt and destroy Jamalul’s followers led by Agbimuddin Kiram, the sultan’s brother, after authorities found bodies of Malaysian policemen that had been “beheaded and mutilated” by the Sulu group.
“There were reports that the eyes of some of the police officers were gouged out (by the sultan’s followers). Malaysia, it seems, won’t stop until they’re [destroyed],” the official said.
Asked about Malaysia’s response to the “disengagement” plan, the official said: “There has been no response yet. This is alarming. It seems that they don’t want to respond to this (suggestion).”
Talk to me
Facing journalists two days after Esmail’s meeting with Roxas, a defiant Jamalul reminded the Aquino administration that only he could make the ultimate decision to end the Sabah crisis.
He said that if the administration of President Aquino was sincere in finding a peaceful solution to the Sabah crisis, “they should talk to me directly.”
“Since the beginning, I already said my door was open to negotiations. I have said that many times,” Jamalul said.
“They have to talk to me. If they can go to Japan, why can’t Malacañang go to me?” he said, referring to the meeting that President Aquino had with Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chairman Murad Ebrahim in 2011 for an end to the Moro insurgency in Mindanao.
“Maybe it’s because they perceive me as stubborn even if I did nothing wrong. I’m just here in my house,” he said.
Jamalul said that while he allowed his younger brother Esmail to talk with Roxas, he did not authorize him to negotiate on behalf of the sultanate.
“I will not allow it (disengagement). But if that will happen, I have to ask my brother in Sabah,” he said, referring to Agbimuddin, who led more than 200 followers of the sultanate to Sabah and occupied Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town on Feb. 9 to stake the Sulu sultanate’s claim to its ancestral homeland.
Ready to die
The intrusion by Agbimuddin’s group was discovered by Malaysian authorities on Feb. 12, leading to a standoff with police that erupted into violence on March 1.
Agbimuddin has lost 58 fighters in skirmishes with Malaysian police and crack military troops since that date.
Eight Malaysian policemen and one soldier have been killed in the fighting.
Reports about beheaded and mutilated bodies of policemen came on March 2, angering the Malaysian government, which responded with a search-and-destroy operation that would not stop unless Agbimuddin’s group lay down their arms and surrender.
Despite appeals from the Aquino administration, Jamalul refused to recall his followers from Sabah.
In text messages to the sultan in Manila, Agbimuddin said he and his men were ready to die in Sabah.
Reports coming from Lahad Datu on Wednesday said police were still tracking Agbimuddin and they were confident that the leader of the Sulu group was still in the area of the police-military operation.
“As a leader, he will not run and leave his people by themselves here. He must lead them,” Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib told a news conference in Lahad Datu.
He showed his anger over Esmail’s using his name “not for the good and welfare of the Filipino people.”
“It hurts. As a brother, I’m really hurt,” he said.
“What was the purpose of him and my sisters coming here? I told him (Esmail), ‘You’re so rich.’ Just imagine how much they spent coming here to Manila and in returning to Jolo,” Jamalul said.
“Who paid for their airfare? It’s Secretary Roxas,” he bluntly said. “I don’t know if it’s a conspiracy or whatsoever. I can’t tell.”
He said that when Esmail visited him on Tuesday he did not tell him the details of his talk with Roxas.
Esmail only spoke about limiting the appearance of Princess Jacel Kiram before the press in deference to Muslim tradition, Jamalul said.
Jacel Kiram is Jamalul’s daughter who has been speaking to reporters about the Sabah crisis since the fighting began.
“He only reported that they have just talked to (Roxas). That’s his only report. The truth is I don’t like him to talk to anybody. If possible, I told him to stay with me,” Jamalul said.
“So I just left because I was irked. I walked out,” he said.
Asked if Esmail acted on his own on the question of disengagement, Jamalul replied, “It looks like that.”
The Malacañang official said Esmail did not really agree to talks about disengagement.
“Esmail only asked about what ifs,” the official said.
“What now? What will be the process if we lay down our arms?” the official said, quoting Esmail.
The official said Esmail feared that Agbimuddin and his men would not be spared even if they lay down their weapons, the reason that Roxas had to ask the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to “clarify” that Esmail had not yet agreed to talk about the withdrawal of the sultanate’s followers from Sabah.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda confirmed that Roxas had asked the DFA to clarify the proposed disengagement.
Roxas went to Basilan on Friday, meeting with Acting Gov. Mujiv Hataman of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and other local officials.
He reportedly flew to Tawi-Tawi Wednesday, but the official could not disclose anything about Roxas’ mission.
Lacierda declined to answer questions about backdoor negotiations, saying only that communication remained open between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.—With a report from The Star/Asia News Network