Thirty-five followers of the sultan of Sulu, who were intercepted by the Philippine Navy in the Sulu Sea on Wednesday while fleeing the search and exterminate mopping-up operations of Malaysian security forces in Sabah, have fallen into the arms of Philippine authorities poised to charge them with criminal offenses.
If the fugitives felt they were in friendly territory after escaping the Malaysian roundup, they were sadly mistaken. They were detained in the naval ships which rescued them, and faced possible criminal prosecution for breaking Philippine laws—not Malaysian laws—for taking part in the landing of the sultan of Sulu’s “royal army” in Sabah on Feb. 9.
The action of the Philippine government on its returning Filipino Muslim nationals fleeing the bloodbath in the killing fields of Sabah was both puzzling and sending mixed signals, raising questions whether it is part of the government’s policy of appeasement of Malaysia.
Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the 35 returnees, one of them a woman, would be taken to court for inquest on a raft of charges, including illegal possession of firearms. They surrendered their weapons to the Philippine Navy upon interception.
“The armed men violated several laws and proper charges will be filed against them,” said a source in the joint fact-finding team of the Department of Justice.
The Philippine National Police, the National Bureau of Investigation and the Department of the Interior and Local Government all threw the collective weight of the government’s law enforcement machinery behind the action.
The source said the charges of illegal possession of firearms and violation of the election gun ban would be brought against the followers of Jamalul Kiram III, the sultan of Sulu.
De Lima said, “There would be other charges, I’m sure,” adding that the sultan’s followers could also be charged “in relation to their activities while in Sabah.”
The government has been blowing hot and cold in its position over the incursion of the sultan’s armed expedition to Sabah as the Philippines and Malaysia moved closer to armed conflict, or rupture of diplomatic relations, in the face of mounting reports of atrocities committed by Malaysian security forces on remnants of the sultan’s followers fleeing into the jungles of Sabah, as well as on noncombatant Filipino Muslims from Sulu, who have been living there for several years.
Human rights violations
The detention of the armed men fleeing the carnage in Sabah came just a few days after the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) issued a stern statement saying that the government “views with grave concern the alleged rounding up of community members of Suluk/Tausug descent in Lahad Datu and other areas in Sabah and alleged violations of human rights reported in the media by some Filipinos who arrived in Sulu and Tawi-Tawi from Sabah.”
The statement said the DFA was coordinating with other government agencies “to document these reports so that appropriate actions could be taken.” It warned the Malaysian government “to take steps to clarify these incidents.”
The warnings indicated that the government was seriously preparing the ground for making a case of violations of human rights to an international tribunal, holding Malaysian leaders liable for the reported atrocities, including alleged wanton killings by Malaysian security forces in their air-ground assault to wipe out the retreating sultan’s forces, as well as brutalities on civilians suspected of aiding their invading kinsmen from Sulu.
That Malaysian authorities did not miss the point that the Philippine government meant business in its warnings against atrocities on Filipino nationals caught in the crossfire in Sabah was apparent from an official announcement from the Malaysian government.
Malaysian Attorney General Abdul Gani Petail announced on Saturday that an investigation of the reported abuses by Malaysian security forces in Sabah had started.
“If the investigation showed there had indeed been abuses, the persons involved will be charged accordingly,” the state-controlled Bernama news agency quoted Abdul Gani as saying in a statement.
Gani said the number of persons detained on suspicion of having links to the armed men from Sulu who occupied a village in Sabah last month in the name of the Sulu sultan had reached 216.
He said those complaining of such excesses would be assisted by the Malaysian Bar and Sabah Law Association. But he added that he had yet to meet anyone who could support reports in the Philippine press, particularly the Philippine Daily Inquirer, that Malaysian policemen had beaten up Filipinos or killed any of them outside of the fighting with Malaysian security forces.
Access to detainees denied
Philippine officials, including diplomats, have been denied access to the detained Filipinos and to eyewitnesses to the reported atrocities. Instead, Malaysia tightened security measures to seal the porous borders with the Sulu Archipelago.
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak on Wednesday said the incursion by the sultan’s followers was a “wake-up call” that would lead to tighter security on the “notoriously porous” sea border with its southern neighbor.
What Razak meant was amplified by Adm. Mohamad Amdan Kurish, head of the Malaysian Enforcement Agency and the Royal Malaysian Navy.
Kurish told reporters in a recent news conference that Malaysia had deployed three ships and six patrol boats in addition to the three ships that had been patrolling Sabah waters prior to the security crisis with the Philippines.
On March 8, Malaysian military chief Gen. Zulkefeli Mohamad Zin was quoted by Bernama as saying that the “tightened cordon” had prevented the “Sulu terrorists” from slipping out of Sabah.
“We are convinced that they are trapped in Kampung Tanduao and Kampung Tanjung Baru,” he said. “We will continue to enforce the cordon and conduct the search, focusing on two places.”
Of direct relevance to Filipinos is the issue: What do we do with the returning gunmen we have? Are we going to act as surrogate jailers of our own people on behalf of Malaysia? And for breaking whose laws? Are we going to send them back to Sabah to be killed there?