DAVAO CITY, Philippines – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak thanked residents of a village in Semporna district who ganged up on, and killed a “terrorist” on March 3.
“I would like to praise the people of Kampung Senalang in Semporna for their bravery and sacrifice in overcoming a terrorist on March 3,” Najib said in a speech he delivered Monday during the 206th anniversary celebration of the Royal Malaysian Police held in Kuala Lumpur.
A copy of the speech can be seen at the website of the state-run Berita Nasional Malaysia (Bernama).
Najib, who has been rallying Malaysians to be more nationalistic in the wake of the Sabah intrusion by some 200 people – about a quarter of them armed members of the Sulu “Royal Security Force (RSF)” – said the “sacrifice” of Senalang villagers had resulted in the death of the “terrorist.”
“In their attempt to defend themselves and the country, the terrorist was killed,” he said.
The 60-year old alleged former Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) commander had reportedly ventured into Senalang, two days before Malaysian jets bombed the “RSF” members holed in Felda Sahabat 17 in Lahad Datu since Feb. 9 and Malaysian ground forces – numbering about 5,000 – started a massive assault dubbed Operasi Daulat (Operation Sovereignty).
In reports by Malaysian media, the “terrorist” was never identified. In the reports, the slain alleged former MNLF commander – who was described as a “big-sized” man – “was armed with a grenade launcher and had gathered several people at a mosque” but some 20 youths found an opportunity to attack him when he lit a cigarette.
Bernama also reported that villagers heard the man claiming “I’m the one who shot the police last night” – referring to the March 2 ambush in Simunul in Semporna in which six Malaysian policemen were killed – as he “kicked open the doors of the houses and ordered the villagers to gather at a vacant area.”
“Their deed and bravery are most appreciated,” Najib said of the March 3 incident.
Following the ambush, Malaysian security forces cordoned Filipino communities in Semporna, raided houses belonging to Suluk (people who originated from Sulu) and made several arrests afterwards.
Former Sabah Chief Minister Harris Salleh immediately issued a statement, in the wake of reports the Suluks were being singled out, and urged the police “to cease action against the Suluk community in Lahad Datu and Semporna.”
Harris, president of the Yayasan Islam Sabah, based his appeal on “reports by Suluk community leaders” that police authorities had confiscated and destroyed Mykads (Malaysian IDs) of hundreds of Suluks.
“This behavior is against any known civilization and the (laws) on religions and policies of the Malaysian government,” Harris was quoted as saying by the Sabah-based newspaper Daily Express.
His successor, Musa Aman later denied the Suluks – numbering over 300,000 – were being singled out and said it so happened the suspected “collaborators” arrested by the police belong to the ethnic group.
Aman said Suluks who did not take part in the “invasion” had nothing to fear even as Malaysian authorities stepped up the “anti-terrorist” operations in Sabah.
Sabah Special Affairs Department (Jasa) director Abdul Manap Lakariba agreed with Aman and said the crisis should not be seen as a racial issue.
“There are many Suluk or Tausug people in Sabah because the southern region of the Philippines is very near to Sabah. They have lived on this land before the formation of Malaysia. In fact, most of them are loyal to this country,” Lakariba said in a separate report carried by the Borneo Post.
He said many Malaysian Tausug or Suluk worked or have been working in the government, including the late chief minister Mustapha Datu Harun – a relative of the Kirams of Sulu.
“So we must avoid any issues concerning race in this incident to ensure the nation’s sovereignty,” he was further quoted as saying.
But the strong anti-Suluk sentiments, especially in the wake of reports of massive issuance of Mykads to them in the past, continue to unfold in public.
“This is the mother of all problems in Sabah. It has always been the mother of all problems. People know about it. Everyone knows about it,” Kadazandusun and Murut (KDM) leader Denis Gimpah was quoted by the news portal Malaysian Insider as saying.
Gimpah said the anger felt by ethnic Kadazandusuns (who make up 32 percent of Sabah population) and Muruts (4.9 percent of the population) would even likely affect the outcome of the general elections.
Jeffrey Kitingan, a KDM veteran politician, said ethnic Sabahans were angry and frustrated at the massive issuance of Mykad to Suluks because it was clear that leaders of the ruling United Malays Nationalist Organization (Umno) had put more importance on their political interest than on the need “to protect the safety of the people.”
It was widely reported that the massive issuance of Mykad took place under the leadership of Mahathir Mohamad.
“Basically, we are scared. We feel… there is this security threat and it is real. It lives among us. And we do not know what lies in the future. We are angry… obviously,” Kitingan said.
Ibrahim Suffian, director of pollster Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, agreed that many indigenous people had blamed the loss of their livelihood on Mahathir’s “Projek IC.”
“The KDMs would be particularly angry as they see this as an encroachment into their territory,” Ibrahim said, adding that Suluk communities had flourished all over Sabah that these communities are, in fact, the third generation now.
In the years prior to “Projek IC,” Sabah’s population was only 651,304. Today, there are more than three million people living on the state – of which 300,000 are Suluks, according to Malaysian government data.
Bernard Dompok, president of the UMNO-allied United Pasokmomogun KadazanDusun Murut Organization (UPKO) said the government should recall all Malaysian identity cards issued in Sabah and only re-issue them to “those identified as genuine Sabahans” or ethnic groups that were already in Sabah long before Malaysia was formed in 1963.
“This will provide an opportunity for us in Sabah to prove the authenticity of our citizenship so that only genuine Sabahans will be issued with citizenship documents like the new identity card,” Dompok, Penampang parliament representative and Plantation Industry and Commodities minister, said.
UPKO has been questioning the issuance of Mykads to “non-ethnic” Sabahan since 2008.
In an obvious defense of his “Projek IC,” Mahathir said in a recent forum that the granting of citizenship to foreigners in Sabah was in line with the “law” and no political considerations had been involved.
“Many in Sabah have been there for over 20 to 30 years. They speak Malay. They have the right to be citizens. The problem is some people don’t like them to be citizens,” he said.
The former prime minister said there was no reason to deny citizenship to qualified foreigners – Suluks included – because “they are needed by Sabah.” He cited the state’s vast areas that were previously uncultivated, which have become productive these days.
But Mahathir also admitted that even if the issuance of ICs during his term was lawful, he had always resented the rise of water villages – mostly populated by Bajaus and Suluks.
He said when he was prime minister, he allowed these water villages to rise over fears of rebellion.
“If we tried (to demolish them) at the time, they would have revolted. Most of them consist of outsiders. We don’t want a lot of trouble,” Mahathir, who remained a powerful figure despite having stepped down a few years back, said.
But he said these water villages – including the one in Simunul where the March 2 ambush took place – should now be demolished because they contributed to the Sabah crisis.
Mahathir said it was difficult to check on people coming to these water villages “even if they carry weapons…because of the cramped walkways.”
He said policemen would be like sitting ducks if “terrorists” came to the water villages because of the “cramped walkways.”
“It makes us open to attacks (ambush),” he said.
On Friday, Najib took action on Mahathir’s suggestion and said the government would resettle people living in several locations in eastern Sabah to maintain public safety.
Eastern Sabah is where most Suluks live and where many water villages populated by Bajaus exist.
Najib said the families to be resettled would be put “in a safe and suitable area determined by the government.”
“It must be emphasized here that the decision to resettle any individual or a group of people is for the sake of maintaining public security,” he said, adding that the resettlement project would also be implemented in other areas of the state in the future.
“On the whole, I would like to stress that the government has never doubted the loyalty of Malaysian citizens of Suluk descent. They are citizens who enjoy the rights provided for by the Federal Constitution and the other laws of the country, and the government will continue to protect their legitimate rights and champion their welfare,” Najib added.