Almost a week since a large group of men and women identified with the Sultanate of Sulu made a mysterious mass landing in Lahad Datu town, in Sabah, much remains to be sorted out. But the excursion’s impact on the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front is becoming clearer by the day.
The number of people involved remains undetermined. Many news reports have pegged the total at “100 armed Filipinos,” with other stories bringing the number up to 200. The man in charge of the expedition, Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, said about 1,000 of his followers left Tawi-Tawi for Sabah on Feb. 11. A report in the Malaysian Star asserts that “the number of armed men has increased from 30 from Saturday to about 300.”
There remains some doubt whether the men were indeed armed. Malaysian authorities said they were and responded accordingly; a Malaysian Star report said they were “armed with M16 rifles, M14 grenade launchers and Colt 45 pistols;” Agbimuddin, the expedition leader, told the Inquirer that his followers had “M-14, M-16, M203, Baby Armalite, basta assorted ang dala namin [we brought assorted weapons].” But two Malacañang spokespersons, both quoting Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, said the men were not armed.
(That women joined the expedition is an assertion of Agbimuddin’s. “We won’t go hungry here because the women who are with us are cooking for us,” he told the Inquirer in Filipino.)
But what were they doing in Sabah in the first place? According to both Agbimuddin and his older brother, Sultan Jamalul Kiram, the expedition was meant to press their claim to Sabah. “I sent my brother in Sabah in the name of peace and in exercise of our historic, ancestral and sovereign right over Sabah,” an ailing Jamalul told the Inquirer. Agbimuddin said the resolution of the age-old claim to Sabah was an “integral and essential aspect” of any peace agreement. But, he said, “they are not interested, this government and the previous governments, so we decided to act on our own.”
News reports out of Malaysia, however, suggest that Malaysian authorities either see Jamalul as part of the solution (“A Sulu Sultan has been called in to resolve a standoff”—the very state of affairs he had caused with his order to Agbimuddin) or that the members of the landing party wanted merely to be acknowledged “as citizens of the Sultanate of Sulu.”
No wonder news reports from around the world have characterized the episode as bizarre.
Because Sulu is part of the Philippines, the claim to Sabah is a national prerogative. Last year, President Aquino described the Philippine claim as “dormant at this point in time,” a pragmatic policy in keeping with a long list of presidential precedents. The policy, as we understand it, is never to relinquish our claim, but also to wait for the right time to push it.
Does the Lahad Datu excursion present the right opportunity to promote our claim? Some legal experts and political opportunists think so. We are not so sure.
It has been suggested that mere physical presence of descendants of the Sultan of Sulu in Sabah would bolster the claim; this is rash and unrealistic, and would only prejudice Philippine standing in any international court.
The immediate danger the excursion presents, however, is to the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF. Read the statements of both the Sultanate leaders and the official responses of Nur Misuari’s faction of the Moro National Liberation Front, and it is hard to escape the conclusion that the Sabah adventure was designed precisely to throw a spanner in the works. The Sultanate leaders felt aggrieved, a spokesperson said, that “the framework agreement [with the MILF] was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.” This is an interesting rationalization, considering that Misuari, their fellow Tausug, negotiated the 1996 peace agreement with the national government that failed to promote the Sabah claim too.
The peace negotiations are far from a done deal, but the two parties have never been this close to a peace agreement—the very compact that will put the Philippine claim to parts of Sabah on firmer footing. The ill-advised excursion to Lahad Datu should not be a cause for distraction.