KUALA LUMPUR: As anger over the incursion of hundreds of armed Filipinos threatens to boil over, a last-ditch attempt by Malaysian police forces to persuade the Sulu group to leave Sabah could be heading for a “conditional resolution” as the standoff entered its second week.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib headed off criticism of the response to the invasion of the so-called Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, reportedly headed by Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, a descendent of the Sultan of Sulu, by saying police had rejected more demands.
“They have agreed to go back but they want to meet certain personalities. We cannot accede to this,” he said yesterday but declined to say who the armed men wanted to meet.
He said this after attending a briefing along with Bukit Aman Internal Security and Public Order director Salleh Mat Rasid at the General Operations Force at the Felda Sahabat land scheme, not far from where some 100 armed Filipinos have been holed up at the remote Kampung Tanduo.
It is believed that two representatives of the armed Sulu group met top police officials and made their latest demands
Hamza also dismissed talks that some of the armed men had managed to slip past a tight security cordon mounted by Malaysian security personnel around the seaside village.
“We know where they are and they are surrounded,” Hamzah said, adding that police were continuing their preparations for the deportation of the group.
He said apart from seeking recognition of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu Army, the other main demand of the group was that there would be no deportation of members of the Suluk community as a result of the ongoing Royal Commission of Inquiry on the state’s illegal immigrant problem.
“We have told them this was the wrong platform and they will have to go back,” Hamzah added.
Asked about growing number of Malaysians who have expressed irritation about the situation, he said: “We have to look at this from various perspectives. We are dealing with human beings. They are not militants and they came because of certain demands.”
“If they come here as militants such as the Abu Sayyaf group, our approach would have been different. Most of the people from Southern Philippines are also related to people in Sabah,” he said.
On Philippines media reports quoting Sultan Jamalul Kiram III as telling his brother, the Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, to stay put in at Kampung Tanduo, Hamzah said: “That was his personal opinion.”
He noted that while Jamalul Kiram was recognised by the Philippine government as Sultan of Sulu, the people of Sulu in the southern Philippines recognised Jamalul’s kin, Ismail Kiram, as their Sultan.
Meanwhile, farmers and oil palm smallholders are praying for a quick end to the stand-off.
Many have been unable to enter the vicinity of Kampung Tanduo at Felda Sahabat 17, some 170km from this east coast town, to harvest their oil palm and other produce such as water melons.
One farmer who tried to enter the tight security cordon surrounding the heavily armed gunmen was turned back by police personnel early yesterday as they feared that the food supplies he was carrying would fall into the hands of the gunmen.
The farmer, who wanted to be known only as Ghafur, said he was trying to get to his oil palm farm and had brought with him food supplies as he intended to spend a week there to carry out the twice- a-month harvest.
Police have told the farmers that they could not enter the cordoned-off area around Kampung Tanduo where the so-called Royal Sulu Sultanate Army has raised yellow flags with the lion emblem of the Sulu sultanate outside a surau.
In an interview with the Philippine media, Azzimudie Kiram, the leader of the group said his men were equipped with “all kinds” of weapons including M-14, M-16, M203 and Armalite assault rifles and five women with them were preparing their meals.
The group comprising those from the Tausug and Bajau communities from Jolo, Basilan and Tawi Tawi have been landing in batches since Feb 9 and the latest arrivals were on Friday, well into the the siege.
Malaysian security forces cordoned off the area on Feb 12.
The 15 families at Kampung Tandua fled the area leaving their farms unattended and have mostly been staying with relatives or friends at the nearby Tanjung Labian settlement.
‘Sabah our homeland’
Meanwhile, questions abound of how boatloads of armed Filipinos had managed to slip into Sabah coast “undetected” by the Malaysian military corp and why the federal government is pussy-footing with these Sulu “militants”.
Observers at the Defence Ministry here are saying that the whole “handling” of the issue has tarnished the image of the Malaysian defence force.
Said one analyst familiar with the Sulu “hold” over Sabah: “Going on how this negotiation is going, it looks like the government is trying to play down this incident and localise it by making it a Sabah issue.
“It’s nothing of the sort. This is not a Sabah issue… it is a matter of sovereignty and how the federal government responds to such threats is important.”
In the Philippines, a reputed daily, The Philippines Daily Inquirer reported that Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, the acknowledged leader of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, has insisted that his royal decree authorised the presence of his younger brother, crown prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, and the combined civilian and armed followers in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia.
“My decree is not about war. We are not waging war. I sent my brother to Sabah in the name of peace and in exercise of our historic, ancestral and sovereign right over Sabah,” the Inquirer quoted him as saying in an interview.
Jamalul said his decree would be in force “for as long as necessary”.
“Sabah is our homeland and the international community acknowledges this. If we have to go to the United Nations we will do so.
“It is upon us, the leaders of Sulu, to claim back what is ours,” said Jamalul.
Jamalul, 74, is reportedly in Manila where he is undergoing dialysis treatment.
Aquino ‘informed since Day One’
Quoting another insider source, The Philipines Daily Inquirer, also reported that President Benigno Aquino was informed of the presence of civilian and armed supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu in Lahad Datu, as early as the morning of Feb 11.
“But at that time, the report was still sketchy and we had no idea who the group was. But the president was alerted about this on Day 1 of their landing in Sabah,” it quoted the insider.
The Inquirer also reported that Agbimuddin said, in a phone interview from Lahad Datu, that he only “follows and receives orders” from Jamalul and no one else.
Agbimuddin also said that there was nothing secret about the group.
“We do our physical fitness exercises at the Zamboanga grand stand, and the Southcom knew it,” he said, referring to is the Southern Command of the Armed Forces of the Philippines based in Zamboanga City.
Agbimuddin hinted that his men were also expecting reinforcements while reports originating out of the Philippines said a group identified with a local politician with a stronghold in one municipality there is reportedly getting ready to follow Agbimuddin in Sabah.
The Inquirer identified the political leader, who commands a force of more than 200 men, as a relative of the Kirams and also a former mayor and a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
“The mayor is getting ready and waiting for the order from Sultan Kiram III to proceed [to Sabah],” it quoted a source as saying.