A dramatic three-week standoff on the island of Borneo claimed its first lives Friday, as Malaysian security forces exchanged gunfire—possibly using mortars—with the so-called Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu.Early reports indicate that 10 to 12 sultanate forces, two Malaysian police commandos, and the owner of a house taken by the sultan’s followers were killed in the battle, with further injuries on both sides. Meanwhile, the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said that 10 of the sultan’s followers were in Malaysian custody but had no word on casualties. Both sides blamed the other for firing first—as the Filipinos of the sultanate sought food to replenish their dwindling stores, Malaysian security forces tightened their security cordon—or both.
Friday’s violence is rooted in “one of the most bizarre relationships in international relations,” according to foreign policy analyst Joseph Hammond.
The province of Sabah, in the present-day Malaysian half of Borneo, was a 1658 gift from the sultan of Brunei to the Sultanate of Sulu for helping defeat an uprising. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu, which once extended through large swaths of the southern Philippines, leased (or ceded, depending on the translation) Sabah in perpetuity to the British North Borneo Company, which in turn ceded control of the territory to the British government in 1946. In 1957, the sultan, by then a figurehead, declared the lease void and assigned his claim to the central Philippines government in Manila. This did not stop residents of Sabah from voting to join the Malaysian Federation in 1963, but Malaysia continues to pay the lease (some 6,300 ringgits—about $1,500) each year to Manila.
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The standoff began in mid-February with an amphibious landing and naval blockade. On 9 February a small flotilla of speedboats, launched from Simunul Island in the Philippines, arrived off the coast of Malaysia and disembarked a landing party. The self-styled “Rajah Mudah,” or crown prince—the younger brother of the sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III—came ashore and bloodlessly captured the village of Tunduao in Lahad Datu town with an unknown number of followers, but with at least several dozen heavily armed men.
“We came here in peace,” Rajah Mudah said in a statement at the time. “We are not here to wage war. The armed men who are with me are the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. We will never bring war to our own territory, much less to our own people.”
Malaysian police and armed forces quickly surrounded the group, established a sea and land blockade, and attempted negotiations. After several deadlines passed for concluding the negotiations, neither side appeared ready to make concessions. Both sides advocated a peaceful resolution.
The Philippine government struck a balance by neither forgoing its claim to Sabah nor backing the armed incursion. On 26 February, President Benigno Aquino issued a statement to the nation and the sultan’s followers asking them to return peacefully to the Philippines. He backed up his words with naval action. The Philippine navy has coordinated patrols with the Malaysian navy and conducted unilateral patrols to prevent reinforcements from departing the Tawi Tawi islands or Sulu. The Philippine navy sent the landing craft utility Tagbanua, embarked with “Filipino-Muslim leaders, social workers and medical personnel” on a “humanitarian mission” to try to bring the sultan’s followers home.
It is unclear whether the standoff has ended. Reports do not account for another 100 or more followers, believed to comprise the group holed up in Lahad Datu, Sabah Province, but the Philippines government received word that some of the Sultan’s men may have escaped toward the sea. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak ordered his commanders to “take necessary action” to force the sultan’s followers out of the northeast corner of Borneo.
According to the Philippines’ Inquirer Global Nation, the sultan’s followers feel excluded by a peace deal struck between the government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front last year that made no mention of the sultan’s claim.
“They are not interested, this government and the previous governments, Rajah Mudah said. “So we decided to act on our own.”