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Drawn-out Sabah crisis

Driving out Kiram forces like hunting fish — Gazmin Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Tuesday that Malaysian forces seeking to drive out followers of the Sulu sultanate in Sabah would have a difficult time because the situation was turning into a protracted, low-intensity conflict. “A low-intensity conflict is like looking for fish in water. When you’re hunting fish, the water is your enemy,” Gazmin said. Gazmin said Malaysian authorities, who had claimed they have crushed the bulk of sultanate fighters when they started mopping operations on March 1, have already deployed 12 battalions of soldiers and policemen, or more than 7,000 men, to hunt down fewer than 200 men led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the sultan’s brother. Violence in Sabah started on March 1 after Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III rejected calls to withdraw his armed followers from Sabah. The sultanate claimed it owned Sabah and that Malaysia was only renting the territory from them. More than 70 people have already been killed in recurring gunbattles in Sabah, with the Malaysian authorities claiming the death of more than 60 Filipino fighters. Thousands of Filipinos have fled Sabah to nearby Tawi-Tawi in southern Mindanao for fear of harassment and retaliation by Malaysian forces. Reports said Malaysia has rounded up and jailed a good number of Filipinos on mere suspicion that they are sympathizers of the sultanate. Gazmin said they have no confirmation of a Malaysian claim that Agbimuddin had returned to the Philippines. He also said both governments were coordinating on the crisis, but offered no details. “We have an arrangement with Malaysia to exchange information,” he said. But Gazmin also said the leader of the sultanate’s forces would not be easy to capture. “Remember, the Raja Muda has been there for quite some time and he has been moving in and out of Malaysia. So h knows the terrain, he has a lot of relatives, once upon a time he was an officer of a barangay so he knows the area. There are actually 12 battalions looking for him,” Gazmin said. Since Feb. 9, Kiram and his followers have been ensconced in Sabah, a short boat ride from Sulu. Their demand for recognition has triggered fighting that has killed more than 70 pepole and displaced 3,879 others. On Tuesday, Malaysian media reported that Malaysian authorities have released 42 suspected supporters of the sultan who were arrested on the country’s draconian Security Offenses Act. The Star Online quoted Deputy Police Inspector General Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar as saying that the 42 were among the 116 people under detention since the military offensive against the sultanate’s royal security forces began on March 5. Khalid also told Malaysian media that they are investigating some “personalities” in Sandakan and Semporma who have been giving financial aid to militants based in Jolo. “My advice to these individuals is to stop doing this as it amounts to treason. The police will not hesitate to act,” he said, adding that they have placed these people under surveillance. Khalid said financing militants in Jolo is a serious offense and those involved could be arrested under the Security Offenses Act . This entails a penalty of life imprisonment or death. In Taguig City, the sultanate’s spokesman Abraham Idjirani dismissed Khalid’s claim as black propaganda. “We don’t know where they got this report. We shouldn’t believe everything these Malaysians are saying,” Idjirani said. Idjirani said Malaysian authorities should also clarify who these “militants” were, adding that the Royal Sulu Army could not be described by the term. Idjirani also denied reports that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak and Sultan Kiram’s brother Sultan Bantilan Esmail Kiram II have met to talk about the Sabah conflict. “They had never met,” Idjirani said, describing photographs on the Internet showing Razak and Esmail in a meeting as fabricated. Esmail, according to Idjirani, went to Sabah in January,weeks before Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram went there. He said Esmail only stayed in Semporna, not in Kuala Lumpur. Idjirani also said Esmail sought an audience with the prime minister but failed to get one. Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has called for an investigation into the supposed meeting. Also on Tuesday, Idjirani announced that a distant relative of the sultan was killed in Sabah shortly after being arrested by security forces. Idjirani said they got this information from the sultan’s brother, Agbimuddin, on Tuesday. He identified the slain Sultan Kiram’s relative as a certain Ustadz Janjan, a religious leader in Semporna. Idjirani said the man was neither a commander nor a member of the sultanate’s army. Idjirani said Ustadz Janjan was a long-time resident of Sabah since the early 1990s. He said Rajah Muda told him in a phone call that Ustadz was arrested by security forces about a week ago. He said they received information about his death Monday. “We can’t remember his family name because he had been in Sabah since the 1990s,” Idjirani said. Also on Tuesday, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said the government had a strong case against 38 alleged followers of the sultan who were intercepted in the waters off Tawi-Tawi, presumably after leaving Sabah. She added that a court’s decision to order a reinvestigation was not a sign of weakness in the government’s case. The 38 are being detained in a naval facility in Panglima Sugala pending a court decision on their public attorney’s motion to reduce bail from P164,000 for each of the accused to only P9,000 “because of their extreme poverty.” De Lima earlier this week submitted her recommendations on the Sulu sultanate’s Sabah claim to President Benigno Aquino III, but Idjirani criticized the government for leaving the sultan out of its review. “If they want a comprehensive solution to the Sabah issue, they should have at least talked to the sultan. A unilateral approach in this problem will only fail,” Idjirani said from Kiram’s residence in Maharlika Village in Taguig City. De Lima said she has submitted the Sabah report to Aquino on Friday, a 10-volume written report purportedly containing historical and legal perspectives on the Philippine’s dormant claim. Aquino said he has yet to study the report and have the concerned agencies provide their respective comments. With Ferdinand Fabella and Rey E. Requejo
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