From Time Magazine (Apr 10): Waging War at the Court of the Sultan of Sulu
The Sultan of Sulu’s Manila home lies in a poor Muslim neighborhood in the
south of the Philippine capital. Its high walls are festooned with royal banners
weighted down by repurposed plastic soda bottles. Advertisements for “Septic
Tank Plumbing Services” are posted next to a derelict Opel station wagon, now
the only fixture on the sidewalk out front. In early February, when armed
supporters of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III landed in Malaysian Borneo to enforce an
ancestral-land claim, media flocked here to meet the low-profile leader, whose
forebears once held sway over the Sulu Archipelago in the southern Philippines. (These days, there
is no civil power attached to the role.) TV news crews crowded the sidewalk
around-the-clock as, hundreds of kilometers away, the sultan’s men were locked
in a clash with Malaysian security forces that has since killed over 70 people
and displaced scores.
Today, the street outside the sultan’s crumbling residence is quieter, but
the fallout from his brazen campaign has not settled. As Malaysian security
forces continue their mopping up operations against the sultan’s men in eastern
Sabah province, a fresh wave of fighters has reportedly entered the fray.
According to Abraham Idjirani, spokesman for the Royal Sultanate of Sulu and
North Borneo, some 400 armed men have managed to breach a joint
Malaysian-Filipino naval blockade in the Sulu Sea. It’s not yet clear who sent
them, though the sultanate asserts they are from Mindanao, where leaders of the
southern Philippine militant group Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) have
pledged support. On March 31, the MNLF threatened a “long, protracted war” if
Malaysian forces continued their pursuit of the self-proclaimed Royal Army of
The Sabah affair is emblematic of territorial disputes that have long
overshadowed the region. Centuries before the modern states of Malaysia and the Philippines came
into being, the islands of the Sulu Sea, and part of resource-rich Sabah, were
ruled by the Sultanate of Sulu. In 1878, the sultan made a fateful deal to lease
Sabah to a British commercial interest; the territory was later annexed by the
British crown and, in 1963, became part of an independent Malaysia. Now the
Kiram family wants it back. It still receives roughly $1,700 a year in rent from
Kuala Lumpur, but views the sum as ridiculous given how profitable the land is
and the status afforded to other sultans in Malaysia. (For reference, Sultan
Kiram and the Sultan of Brunei, once named the world’s richest man, share the
same great-great grandfather.)
These days, Sultan Kiram, 74, could use some extra cash. On a recent morning,
he was away at the hospital for one of his biweekly dialysis sessions. Fatima,
his panguian — to use the term bestowed on a sultan’s wife — insists
that while “he’s still O.K.,” he’s not the fleet-footed tango dancer who dazzled
her early in their marriage. A
retired civil servant, she worked full-time for over 20 years to support the
family while the sultan managed a modest seafood-exporting business. In between
filling cuttlefish orders from Japan, he was called upon to help mediate
domestic insurgencies. Photo albums on the coffee table show the sultan wearing
his trademark brown sunglasses next to grim-faced MNLF rebels and government
Back in the 1970s, Fatima recalls urging her husband to also take up the gun.
“I told him, ‘Why don’t you go the mountains and fight the [Malaysians]’ … you
are only recognized if you are a rebel force,” she says. For years, the sultan
countered that patience and diplomacy were the best course and wrote letters to
officials, but to no avail. On Feb. 6, about 200 of his followers — some of them
heavily armed — were dispatched to Sabah. A weeks-long impasse in a coastal
village ended in bloodshed, as a Malaysian ground assault gave way to air
strikes. The Sultan’s fighters and their commander, Agbimuddin Kiram, the
sultan’s 70-year-old brother, melted into the jungle, where sporadic gun battles
The crackdown has made a hard life even harder for the 800,000–plus Filipino
migrant workers who help sustain Sabah’s booming palm-oil and petroleum
industries. The Malaysian government, already facing criticism for harsh
treatment of its migrant underclass, is accused by rights groups of widespread
harassment of civilians as it moves to flush out the Royal Army. Dozens of homes
have been destroyed and hundreds of Filipinos have fled abroad. Analysts warn
that the toll will further aggravate anti-Malaysian sentiment in the southern
Philippines, less than an hour away by boat.
With such valuable interests in the region and general elections on the
horizon, the Malaysian government has shown no willingness to cede any ground.
State officials, keen to project strength, have labeled the Royal Army
“terrorists” and ignored the U.N.’s demands for a cease-fire. In Manila,
President Benigno Aquino has tried to balance relations with Malaysia, a key
ally and trading partner, with pressing political calculations at home as a
midterm ballot nears. The sultan enjoys considerable standing among Muslims in
the restive south of the country, and his claim to Sabah has become a matter of
Sultan Kiram judges the incursion to be a partial success in that his cause
finally has the world’s attention. “I regret that people have died,” he says,
moments after returning from his hospital treatment, walking with a cane.
“However, we must make a sacrifice to enjoy the fruits that are rightfully
ours.” He would not (or could not) say who the new fighters who have joined his
army were, only that they were “volunteers” going to Sabah to seek “revenge for
their brothers” killed by Malaysian forces. “We cannot stop people now,” he
adds, somewhat cryptically, “but peace is our hope.”
The sultan says his people will hold out as long as it takes, but time may
not be on his side. At midday his voice was faint and, behind the signature dark
glasses, one of his eyes was fully shut. A handful of local journalists who by
now had gathered outside to interview him would have to wait a while longer. The
sultan needed a nap.
This was the statement of Mohagher Iqbal, chief MILF peace negotiator and head of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (BTC), during the closing program of the GPH-MILF Exploratory Talks in Kuala Lumpur on April 9-11.
He cautioned the government against prolonging the talks further.
Earlier, Prof. Miriam Ferrer-Coronel, government peace chief negotiator, told media reporters that the comprehensive peace agreement will be signed in March this year, which she changed to April after the parties failed to beat the timeline.
The two parties set the next round of talks after the May 13 Philippine elections.
Meanwhile, Datu Antonio Kinoc, alternate member of the MILF peace panel, told Luwaran that he could not understand why government always changes position, which he explained as the real cause of the delays.
“I do not know where the problem lies - in the negotiating team or in their principal,” he confessed.
Maulana Alonto, senior MILF Panel member and also a member of the BTC admitted that their negotiating team was taken aback by the failure of the GPH Panel to sign at least the Annex on Wealth-Sharing, the text of which was already agreed on and initialled by the two Parties during the 36th GPH-MILF Exploratory Talks last February.
“Before we flew to Kuala Lumpur for the 37th Exploratory Talks, expectations were
high that the Panels would be able to put closure to further discussions on the Annex on Wealth-Sharing since the text was already initialled by both sides last February 25th. Of course, the Panels had the right to bring it back to their respective principals for a cursory review, but we were thinking this was merely routine because the Panels had already concurred on the language of the initialled text and that consultations were made with their principals before the initialling took place. We were not prepared, however, for the sudden announcement by the GPH panel that they needed more time to revisit and review the Wealth-Sharing Annex despite the fact that more than a month is an ample time to make such a review. I therefore share the sentiment of my team mates in the MILF Panel that something is wrong. A very serious problem now on the question of credibility has come to the fore. We are racing against time but the way things are turning out, time might outrun us,” Maulana Alonto lamented.
For his part, Abdulla Camlian, another MILF peace panel member and likewise a TC member, gave an abbreviated comment by saying that these uncertainties would boil down to what President Benigno Aquino III has in mind.
“I think there is much traffic between him and his negotiators and we may be looking at communications problem between them as the culprit,” he surmised.
“Let us wait for certainly the real score will be known sooner or later,” he added.