From a dirty plastic chair in a rundown district of the Philippine capital, an ailing man claiming to be the head of an ancient Muslim dynasty whispers defiant decrees that infuriate a president.

Jamalul Kiram III, who insists he is the genuine “sultan of Sulu”, emerged from political obscurity this month after a few dozen of his armed followers sailed to neighbouring Malaysia to stake an ancestral territorial claim.

The gunmen took control of a small coastal village in Sabah state on Borneo island, triggering a standoff with Malaysian security forces that has yet to be resolved and deeply embarrassing Philippine President Benigno Aquino.

NONEAlthough he is weak from kidney disease that needs twice-weekly dialysis, Kiram, 74 (left), insists he is willing to take on the Philippine and Malaysian governments to assert his family’s claim to resource-rich Sabah.

Speaking in a voice barely above a whisper, he tells reporters who gather daily at his modest two-storey home that his “royal army” will never abandon Sabah.

“If they have to die, then they will die. They are sacrificing (themselves) for whatever may happen,” he said this week after Aquino ordered Kiram to withdraw his men back to their southern Philippine island homes.

Kiram’s house in Manila is festooned with banners proclaiming the “Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”, with a coat of arms showing two crossed swords, informing visitors on the pot-holed street that they are in royal territory.

Kiram speaks nostalgically of the Sulu sultanate’s glory days before European colonisation, when it ruled over Sabah and large parts of the southern Philippines.

The Kirams say they are descended from the prophet Muhammad, through a Mecca-born Arab who travelled to South-East Asia.

The sultanate boasts that, in centuries past, it had active relations with other Asian kingdoms and even with China’s Ming dynasty, while dominating the Sulu Sea with a powerful navy.

But the sultanate lost much of its influence to European colonial powers, officially losing Sabah in 1878 via a loosely worded contract to a British trading company that paved the way for it to be part of Malaysian territory.

Sabah has prospered under Malaysia.

But the remote islands of Sulu are now among the poorest parts of the Philippines, home to insurgents that continue to wage rebellion against the government while dreaming of an independent Muslim homeland.

While Kiram is comfortable with the sultanate remaining part of the Philippines, he says he sent his men into Malaysia so that his family and the national government’s claims to Sabah will be recognised.

The Philippine government has never renounced its claim to Sabah. However, Aquino and previous governments have not challenged Malaysia over the issue, preferring instead to pursue warm bilateral relations.

Seeking a greater share of the riches of Sabah

Although Kiram and his advisers insist money is not the motivation for their incursion into Malaysia, they have also signalled the “royal army” would stand down if the sultanate was given a greater share of the riches of Sabah.

Under the agreement in 1878 that saw the sultanate lose Sabah, Malaysia continues to give the Kiram family a nominal compensation payment of about 70,000 pesos (US$1,700) a year.

“The fare for a hired (pedicab) is even higher than their payment,” Kiram said.

Since the 1960s, Kiram has largely lived in Manila - about 900km from the strife-torn Sulu islands - from where he has been able to look after his business interests.

Kiram said he owned large tracts of rice and coconut plantations, and he has a wide following among the local residents in Sulu.

He lost in his sole foray into national politics when he ran for the Senate in 2007 under the party of then-president Gloria Arroyo, who now stands accused of massive corruption during her time in power.

Kiram said he ran on her ticket to better establish his credentials to the title of sultan of Sulu, amid a bewildering array of competing claims.

Aquino, seeking to pressure Kiram into submission, told reporters this week that the Sabah issue was clouded by questions as to who was the real sultan.

“They have at least five people who are claiming to be the sultan of Sulu. So that is one of my first problems: who actually represents the sultanate of Sulu?” Aquino said.

The Sulu provincial government lists on its website that one of Kiram’s brothers is the sultan.

Ibrahim Bahjin, a doctor based in the southern Philippines, also insists he is the real sultan.

“All the brothers and nephews have been fighting for the sultanate. We belong to different royal houses. But I was proclaimed paramount sultan in 2004,” he told AFP by phone.