Evidence of Malaysian atrocities in Kuala Lumpur’s “search and annihilate” military operations against fleeing followers of the Sultan of Sulu continues to mount in the wake of Philippine naval interceptions of refugees from Sabah.
The Western Mindanao Command of the Philippine military was reported by the Philippine media yesterday to have intercepted two boats carrying 32 Sulu gunmen, followers of the sultanate’s “Royal Army,” drifting in the Sulu Sea, fleeing hot pursuit by Malaysian security forces. The Inquirer reported that the Wesmincom chief, Lt. Gen. Rey Ardo, said one of the boats had 18 passengers, including an unidentified woman, and some were wounded. The other boat reportedly had 14 passengers carrying firearms.
Ardo said the flight of the armed men, believed to be followers of the sultanate who landed in Sabah on Feb. 9, indicated “they were in panic” as Malaysian security forces intensified the hunt for the remnants of the sultan’s forces trapped in the jungles of Sabah. “They are obviously afraid and they returned to evade arrest,” Ardo said.
The armed men were to be turned over to the Philippine National Police. But it was not clear whether they would be charged by Philippine authorities with breaking Philippine laws for taking part in the expedition intended to press the sultanate’s proprietary claim to Sabah, which it considers its ancestral domain. Malaysia also wants the sultan’s men to face charges under stern Malaysian internal security laws—that is, those of them who may survive the crackdown being conducted by no less than 10,000 army and police ground troops backed by their air force.
The armed men fled Sabah following an announcement last week by Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib that Malaysian security forces were making sure the remaining “terrorists” led by Agbimuddin Kiram, the brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, would fall under Operations Daulat (sovereignty). Hamza said that only small areas in the so-called “red zones” of Tawau, Semporna and Lahad Datu were being searched for remnants of the sultanate’s forces. “We believe he is still in Kampung Tanjung Batu with some of his followers,” Hamza said of Agbimuddin.
Since the launch of Operations Daulat nine days ago, 56 Sulu gunmen had reportedly been killed but only 44 bodies had been found. The reported deaths comprised only less than a quarter of the up to 250 armed men who landed in Sabah on Feb. 9. The fact that Malaysia has deployed no less than 10 battalions of troops, backed by its entire air force, highlights the excessive overkill application of its armed forces to try to wipe out the followers of the sultanate.
The fighting in Sabah, far from dying down, has dangerously escalated into a serious military conflict that has severely strained diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia. It has also damaged the prospects of the conclusion of the provisional agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front on the establishment of the Bangsamoro entity in Mindanao. Malaysia has acted as a mediator in the project, a centerpiece initiative of President Aquino’s administration to bring to an end the generations-old Moro insurgency in Mindanao. With the conflict in Sabah, demands have been refueled in the Philippine Congress and several public sectors to reopen talks with Malaysia in the United Nations concerning the Philippine claim to Sabah, which all Philippine administrations, including the incumbent, had put on the back burner or had considered “dormant.”
The more blood will flow even only in Malaysia’s mopping-up, search-and-destroy operations in Sabah, the more public pressure will build up on the Aquino administration to reopen the Sabah issue at the International Court of Justice. The Aquino administration has also come under increasing criticism for siding with Malaysia on the issue of Malaysia’s excessive use of force to flush out the remaining forces of the sultanate in the jungles. It has been accused of not doing enough to restrain Malaysia from butchering Filipino citizens who had taken part in the Sabah landings.
On March 10, the Philippine government protested for the first time the Malaysian forces’ heavy-handed actions on the Filipinos. The Department of Foreign Affairs issued a strongly worded statement, saying that it viewed with grave concern the alleged rounding up of community members of Suluk/Tausug descent in Lahad Datu and other areas in Sabah and the alleged violations of human rights reported in the media by some Filipinos who had arrived in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
The DFA urged the Malaysian government to take steps to clarify these alleged incidents, “to give Philippine Embassy officials and humanitarian/consular teams dispatched to Lahad Datu and nearby areas full access of Filipinos being held in several locations in Sabah,” and “to give humane treatment to Filipinos under their custody.”
“The allegations are alarming and should be properly and immediately addressed by concerned authorities,” the statement said.
At last, the Philippine government has rediscovered its nerve to declare that it is not a satrap of Kuala Lumpur. With that, the government has ceased to be a doormat of the butchers in Malaysia.