Three extensions to the followers of the Sulu Sultan to leave Lahad Datu have expired and all indications are that they are going to dig in and stay.
MANILA: The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) has indicated that it will send reinforcements if hostilities break out between the Filipino followers of the Sulu Sultan and Malaysian authorities.
MNLF special branch service chief Khaber Sampang said they will send reinforcements once hostilities break out.
He said “a full-blown hostility could erupt” once the Malaysians manhandle the heirs or followers of the Sultanate of Sulu.
“War is not far away,” said MNLF peace panel member Cesar Absalom, referring to the threat of Malaysia to forcibly evict the Royal Sultanate Army in Sabah.
The Philippine Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas said on Tuesday that the Malaysians are running out of patience.
Roxas said that the Malaysian government has given three extensions to the deadline for Agbimuddin Kiram and his followers, who encamped at Lahad Datu for the past two weeks, to leave Sabah and return to the Philippines.
The sultanate is no longer recognised by any state as a sovereign entity, but Malaysia has been paying token rent to the Kirams ever since. Agbimuddin Kiram, who claimed Sabah is their home, has ignored calls from Malaysia to return to the Philippines.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the flow of commerce between Sabah and the several islands in the southern Mindanao has stopped because of tight control of movement of people between the two countries as a result of the occupation.
“The consequence of this incident is that barter trade has stopped. Prices of basic commodities in Tawi-Tawi jacked up,” Gazmin said.
“Kasi and Tawi-Tawi get its supply of basic commodities and trade its products at Lahad Datu in Sabah, which is closer than Zamboanga City,” he said.
Gazmin said Kiram’s defiance could result in Malaysian government crackdown against undocumented Filipinos in Sabah, which was estimated at 800,000 and their fates are in the hands of Kiram.
Political allies of President Beningo Aquino also joined calls on Kiram to end the standoff in Sabah and consider the welfare of Filipinos, who are now stateless because Malaysia considered them illegal immigrants.
“Bringing the supposed Sabah heirs and government representatives in one table would allow discussions on the complex issues involved in the Sabah claim, including the plight of Sabah residents who have Filipino roots,” Senator Francis Escudero said.
“The immediate concern of the government should be the welfare of Filipinos who were born and raised in Sabah, which is the bigger humanitarian issue that must be addressed through diplomatic channels,” he said.
“The welfare of our countrymen, who consider Sabah as their homeland, should be the focus of any government negotiation with the Malaysian government,” Escudero said.
The ailing Kiram sounded unmoved by Aquino’s warning to stand down.
At a news briefing in his house in Taguig City, Kiram rejected the president’s appeal for him to immediately recall his men who have been occupying a part of Sabah for nearly three weeks.
“I have already given my order to them. And they have to stay put in that area,” Kiram said in a muffled voice.
He said his men would not go back home “until an arrangement has been done by our officials and the president, and if that will be arranged accordingly with a written agreement signed by the parties concerned”.
Kiram said that in the last conversation he had with Agbimuddin on Monday, his younger brother told him that he and their 235 followers were firm in their decision to stay despite a food blockade ordered by the Malaysian authorities.
Asked what actions Agbimuddin and his men might take if the deadline for them to leave Sabah expired, the Sulu sultan said: “I asked them to wait for orders from me or from my [other] brothers.”
Ready to be jailed
Kiram, who has been suffering from diabetes for years, said he was ready to go to jail if the government filed a case against him and members of his clan.
“It’s OK with me. I’m already 74-years-old. An old man going to jail? It’s OK,” Kiram said. “I cannot understand what violation I made… I have always respected the constitution. My brother went down there with his men and settled down in their own homeland. Is that a violation?”
Asked if he considered Aquino’s statement a threat, he said: “Maybe that’s a threat for us.”
In a statement read by his daughter, Princess Jacel Kiram, the sultan reiterated that Agbimuddin and his men “will not initiate the violence… But we are prepared to defend our lives and aspirations”.
He said the Sabah issue “can be peacefully settled without threat, but in a diplomatic way.”
“Is it hard for Malaysia to sit down in a square table and to diplomatically settle the issue on the claim? All we ask is for Malaysia to sit down with the Kirams and come up with a win-win solution,” Kiram said.
Kiram insists he is the head of the Sulu sultanate, which once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff. The sultanate leased the disputed area to Europeans in the 1870s.
While the sultanate’s authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, it continued to receive lease payments for Sabah, which became part of Malaysia in 1963.
Foreign Undersecretary Jose Brillantes has flown to Kuala Lumpur to help resolve the situation.
A ship the Philippines plans to use to ferry Kiram’s supporters home remains on standby in Tawi-Tawi.