In March, reports emerged that the Malaysian government was sending security forces to the state of Sabah after a 200-strong group from the Philippines landed at Lahad Datu and demanded that this part of northern Borneo was returned to their local sultan.
The group’s point of origin was the island of Simunul in the Tawi Tawi archipelago of the southern Philippines. Working under the name of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo (RSFSSNB), its mission was apparently instigated by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, a claimant to the throne of the so-called Sultanate of Sulu. It was aimed at highlighting and furthering an unresolved territorial claim involving North Borneo, now known as Sabah. With an area of about 72,000 square kilometres, Sabah is one of Malaysia’s 13 states.
Initial reports suggested that Malaysian security forces and the RSFSSNB were locked in an uneasy standoff, but a number of clashes ensued, resulting in casualties on both sides. While President Benigno Aquino III of the Philippines has appealed for calm and negotiation, the Malaysian prime minister, Najib Razak, has been under pressure to act decisively. He was reported as saying that Malaysian forces should ‘take any action deemed necessary’.
Delicate negotiations have ensued, involving medical assistance for the Filipino injured and the development of a mechanism to help resolve the dispute without further loss of life. The government of the Philippines accused Malaysia of inflaming tensions by dispatching further troops to the region. Both countries have increased naval patrols and at the time of writing, a number of Malaysians were being held hostage by the Filipino group.
Founded during the 15th century, the Sultanate of Sulu ruled over many of the islands in the Sulu Sea, in the southern Philippines and parts of what is now Sabah (then North Borneo). From 1888, North Borneo was a British protectorate before becoming an integral part of Malaysia in 1963, even if an honorific relationship with the sultanate remains in place.
Supporters of the incursion maintain that Malaysia must renegotiate the relationship between the Sulu sultanate and Sabah. Although Malaysia has rejected all attempts to cede control over northern Borneo, it has continued its annual payments to descendants of the sultanate under the terms of an agreement negotiated with the North Borneo Chartered Company, which administered North Borneo from 1881.
The historic claim of the Sulu sultanate is an important element of the unfolding crisis, but there are other issues involved. Heirs of the sultanate have complained that their interests were marginalised in the peace deal signed in October last year between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which operated in the country’s south.
Jamalul Kiram III, acting as an heir of the sultanate, decided that its territorial rights to North Borneo should be protected. So the incursion was as much a historical hangover as it was a strategy to highlight grievances with the Filipino government.
President Aquino has accused Jamalul Kiram III of acting illegally under the terms of the Filipino constitution and endangering other Filipinos living and working in Sabah. Kiram has rejected these criticisms and there are fears that members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) may travel south to support the RSFSSNB.
Resolving this dispute won’t be straightforward. Both Malaysia and the Philippines are concerned that it will escalate, especially if the MNLF becomes involved. Leaders in both countries are facing elections this year and public pressure is likely to grow for a robust response.
The dispute has also generated a number of conspiracy theories in both countries. The Malaysian prime minister has accused the leader of the opposition of being complicit in the incursions and there has been speculation that the incumbent government in Malaysia has encouraged the crisis in order to generate fear among Sabah’s population and thus encourage voters to stick with the ruling coalition.
In the longer term, the crisis might cast doubt over Malaysia’s involvement in the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement between Manila and the MILF. It might also harm Sabah’s tourism industry.
It’s also worth noting that the Indonesian government has expressed concern about the safety of its citizens in Sabah and warned Indonesian commercial vessels to avoid the waters near the disputed zone. Historically, Indonesia has also challenged Malaysian sovereignty over North Borneo and in 2002 lost a dispute over the islands of Sipadan and Ligitan when the International Court of Justice ruled in favour of Sabah and Malaysia.
This episode, therefore, isn’t a localised one, but indicative of broader territorial and strategic tensions over North Borneo.