The Lahad Datu “invasion” is not merely about a group of armed men intruding into Sabah. After weeks of a tense standoff between the “occupiers” and Malaysian security forces, a clearer picture has emerged.
It appears that the heavily armed group wants to turn the “occupation” into an international issue, specifically to draw attention to its plea for an independent Sulu sultanate.
But the sultanate is financially not in good shape and hence, the group turned its attention to Sabah where it claimed the Sulu sultan has “rented out” the state to Malaysia.
The Sulu sultan told AFP on Feb 27 that the Malaysian government is paying the sultanate RM5,300 yearly in exchange for agreeing to let Sabah become a Malaysian state.
It appears that the group wants to renegotiate for a higher “rent”. By seeking a higher payment, the sultan hopes to keep Sulu afloat.
However, the Malaysian government has not acknowledged the existence of such a “rent”.
The group probably decided that the best way to force the Malaysian government to renegotiate a better “deal” is to occupy the village in Lahad Datu.
According to observers, the sultanate has little resources at its disposal to run the “government” of Sulu. Thus a fresh deal with Malaysia will help it keep the ball rolling.
Manila’s war against “terror” did not include the province of Sulu. But still the province was engulfed in this war as the Abu Sayyaf group spread its wings across the Muslim majority areas.
As a result, Manila sent its armed forces to Sulu in its campaign against terrorism. But the Sulu people did not see the presence of the Philippine armed forces as part of the war on terror.
Instead, they deemed it as an occupation force, attempting to control the territory and at the same time exploiting the vast riches of the region.
It is reported that its natural wealth includes minerals and oil and gas reserves in the Sulu waters. According to observers, the Philippines has so far failed to carry out its oil extraction activities in Sulu.
By forcefully entering Sabah, the “Sulu Sultanate Royal Army” hopes to renegotiate the annual fees and also to get Malaysia to extract the oil in Sulu.
According to some reports, Manila and its foreign partners have stopped extracting oil in Sulu because of frequent breakdown in the drilling machine.
A little-known event occurred in November 2010 when the sultan of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, officially declared the Sulu province an independent state from the Philippines.
The Tausug people (the people of the Sulu sultanate are from the Tausug tribe) see themselves as independent, free and have adopted the syariah as their constitution.
This piece of news was not reported in the Malaysian mainstream media.
In the peace deal concluded between Manila and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Sulu province was not included.
(The MILF is a breakaway faction from the MNLF. The former is pursuing its claim to Sabah.)
According to an observer close to the Tausug royalty, the sultanate of Sulu Darul Islam (SSDI) is not part of the framework agreement between Manila and the MILF.
Since 2010, the bulk of the Philippine armed forces had withdrawn from Sulu.
According to sources, the United States is not against an independent Sulu. This perhaps explains why Manila did not take any action against the sultan when he made the declaration of independence.
KL-based Amir Ali works for an Indonesian NGO called the Warisan Melayu Riau, which is based in Bengkalis, Riau.