In just 10 days, the standoff in Sabah has spiraled from a firefight between Malaysian security forces and followers of the sultan of Sulu who landed in the village of Tanduao, Lahad Datu town, on Feb. 9, into a war of extermination mounted by both the Philippine and Malaysian governments, conspiring with each other, to evict the sultan’s men under siege in their enclave.
In their first encounter in the morning of Friday, 12 of the 235 men led by the brother of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III were killed when superior Malaysian forces attacked them.
The Filipinos sailed to Sabah from Tawi-Tawi island, in the Sulu Archipelago, to press the sultanate’s bid to reclaim its ancestral land in the former British North Borneo.
This is a curious conflict where the Philippine government has gone to war against its own citizens from the Muslim southern region, assisting Malaysia in its mailed-fist action to expel the sultan’s followers after they refused to heed pressure/ultimatum from Manila and Kuala Lumpur authorities to leave and return to the Sulu Archipelago or face dire consequences.
This Malaysian-Philippine collaboration—in which the Philippine government has played second fiddle and subservient to Kuala Lumpur—in the gang-up on the recalcitrant sultanate’s followers was clearly evident on Day One of the hostilities.
The first wire services and press reports on the shootout in Sabah on March 1 said that Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez told reporters in a press briefing that Malaysian Ambassador Mohammad Zamri Mohammad Kassim met with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at 2 p.m. of that day to inform him that “the standoff has ended.”
The DFA apparently took this report on its face value. There were no attempts from the DFA to inquire whether the attack on the sultan’s men was carried out with maximum restraint.
Although details were to follow shortly, the DFA appeared overly anxious to see the end of the standoff. It was echoing the position of Malaysia, or acting as an extension of the Malaysian Embassy in Manila.
The Malaysians told the DFA they had resolved the standoff their own way—at the cost of 12 Filipino lives. The standoff turned into violence after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that his patience had “run out” after the sultan’s men refused to obey demands for them to leave Sabah.
It was only later that President Aquino ordered an investigation to determine what really happened in Sabah in the face of conflicting reports from Malaysian authorities and the sultanate’s followers.
Apparently disturbed by the violent turn of events and its implications on Philippine-Malaysian relations and the administration’s initiative to set up a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao to end decades of Moro insurgency, the President held emergency meetings with senior Cabinet members to take steps to prevent the clashes in Sabah from further spreading.
Malaysia has acted as an intermediary to facilitate the sealing of the Compromise Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A spokesperson for the sultan of Sulu, Abraham Idjirani, denounced the raid on the group led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Kiram, as a “massacre.” The “first shot was fired by the Malaysian commando forces,” according to Idjirani.
Before the clash, representatives of the sultan were on their way to the Malaysian Embassy for an “informal dialogue” with the Malaysian ambassador.” But reports of the clash in Tanduao came while the group was on the road. The sultan recalled the representatives “because the shooting had started.”
The Star newspaper of Malaysia reported that Prime Minister Najib had given security forces authority to take whatever action they thought necessary to end the standoff. Najib claimed that Agbimuddin’s group had ventured 1.5 kilometers from the area they had occupied.
Earlier, Najib warned Agbimuddin’s group to leave before the authorities took action. “Do not test our patience, our patience has reached the limit,” he said.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said the shootout began when the sultan’s followers fired at security forces as they were tightening their cordon around Tanduao.
“The intruders fired at us, then we returned fire,” he said. “As a result of the fire, two of my men died, three were injured and … 12 intruders died.”
Statement of capitulation
Agbimuddin told radio station dzBB in Manila that Malaysian police surrounding Tanduao opened fire at midmorning and his group fought back.
“They suddenly came in,” he said. “We fought back to defend ourselves.”
The threat of further bloodshed in Tanduao village—even the extermination of the sultan’s men still holed up there—loomed larger as Malaysia issued an ultimatum on Saturday that it would take “drastic action” against the sultan’s men.
President Aquino, as in the first shootout, poured oil on the fire, took the side of Malaysia and sent a message to the besieged group: “Surrender now, without conditions.”
The statement had two effects: It not only emboldened Malaysia to carry out its threat; it also made the sultan more defiant. Referring to the President’s statement, Sultan Jamalul said: “The only thing they know is surrender. Why should we surrender in our own home? They did nothing in their own home.”
Agbimuddin, the leader of the cornered men, sent a text message to the sultan, saying his remaining men (224) were “prepared to die.” The spokesperson for the sultanate said that Agbimuddin’s group went to Sabah to compel a peaceful resolution of the sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
The Malaysian prime minister told reporters that after talking with Mr. Aquino on Friday night, he decided to give Agbimmudin’s group two choices: “Surrender or face the action of our security forces.”
Succumbing to the Malaysian threat, the President, rather than trying to restrain the hands of the Malaysians from further mayhem, gave them clearance. He issued the statement of capitulation:
“To our citizens in Lahad Datu, from the very start, our objective has been to avoid the loss of lives and the shedding of blood. However, you did not join us in this objective. Because of the path you have taken, what we have been trying to avoid has come to pass. If you have grievances, the path you chose was wrong. The just, and indeed, the only correct thing for you to do is to surrender.”
With that the President has driven the last nail on the coffin of the Philippine claim to Sabah. What he didn’t say to the sultan’s men was: If you get slaughtered by the Malaysians, that’s your fault. Condolences.