The sultan claims his followers will stay in Lahad Datu, adding that nobody will be sent to the Philippines as this is their ancestral territory.
Sultan Jamalul Kiram said that his followers—some 400 people including 20 gunmen—were resolute in staying despite being cornered by security forces, with the Kuala Lumpur government insisting that the group return to the Philippines.
“Why should we leave our own home? In fact they [the Malaysians] are paying rent [to us],” he told reporters in Manila.
“Our followers will stay in [the Sabah town of] Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home,” he said.
The Manila Times reported the sultan did not directly threaten violence but said: “there will be no turning back for us.”
Malaysian officials have said that many of the group have weapons, but Kiram insisted that his followers made the trip unarmed.
“If they have arms, they were already in Sabah,” the sultan said.
The southern Philippine-based Islamic sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff, and its heirs have been receiving a nominal yearly compensation package from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement for possession of Sabah.
Kiram said that he was prompted to send the group to Sabah after the sultanate was left out of a framework agreement sealed in October between Manila and Filipino Muslim rebels, which paves the way for an autonomous area in the southern Philippines that is home to the Muslim minority of the largely Christian nation.
The sultanate’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, later said that the sultan’s brother Raja Muda Abimuddin Kiram, who led the group to Sabah, had told him via telephone that the party was preparing to stay.
“The objective is to reside now in that place permanently, considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty,” he said.
Idjirani said that there were about 400 followers of the sultanate in the area, including about 20 who were armed.
Ready to die
On Thursday, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put the number at 80 to 100 gunmen.
“We recognize the capability of Malaysia. We don’t have the arms and capacity but we have the historical truth,” he said, adding that the group’s “fate is to see the recognition they are entitled to… or they die defending their ancestral rights”.
Idjirani said that aides of President Benigno Aquino had been in contact with the sultan and were willing to deliver a letter to the Malaysian government on his behalf for negotiations.
Malacañang on Monday appeared uncertain on how to address the standoff.
Palace deputy spokesman Abigail Valte told reporters that President Benigno Aquino did not order anyone to “shake up” the country’s claim on Sabah.
Valte said that the claim “has not moved for quite some time.”
“The President did make mention of it, that it’s been dormant. Let’s leave it at that for the moment,” she told reporters.
Valte admitted that the government has yet to decide what step to take next.
“We don’t know. We don’t know yet. Our focus now is just to make sure that these people are alright, [and] that there would be a peaceful ending to the incident,” she added.
Valte said that no meeting between the heirs of the sultanate of Sulu province and the President has been arranged, adding that it will be the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) that will be coming up with announcements on the update of the standoff in Sabah.
“At this point we can’t really talk about the specifics yet. The matter is very sensitive. The incident is very sensitive and, as such, we are withholding comment and deferring to the DFA just to apprise the public on any developments,” she said.
Senator Gregorio “Gringo” Honasan on Monday also said that the Philippines can revive its claim on Sabah but the government would have to be very careful so that Malaysian authorities would not think that the Philippines is resorting to violence.
Honasan said that government should also make sure that the controversy will not affect the peace process and framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“I agree that we can revive our claim over Sabah, but not in this manner that we might be perceived as trying to initiate an armed conflict here,” he said.