Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Feeling betrayed and left out in the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu have decided to press their claim to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah on their own.
Crown Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram said in an interview with the Inquirer that the government appeared to have neglected the heirs and ignored their stand that their claim to Sabah was an "integral and essential" aspect of any peace agreement with any armed group in Mindanao.
Abraham Julpa Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson of the Sultanate of Sulu, said the decision to show not just physical presence but actual occupation of Sabah came late last year, shortly after the Aquino administration signed a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF.
The standoff continued yesterday with Rajah Mudah's claim to be under the protection of the security forces of the Sultanate of Sulu adding more mystery to the bizarre border drama.
Departure on Feb 11
"They are not interested, this government and the previous governments, so we decided to act on our own," Rajah Mudah said.
Early on February 11, Rajah Mudah and about 1,000 of his followers, including armed men from what he called "Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo" left Simunul Island in Tawi-Tawi in speedboats and headed for Sabah.
Rajah Mudah described his action as not an act of aggression but a journey back home.
"We came here in peace. 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," Rajah Mudah said.
His group landed in the village of Tunduao in Lahad Datu town in Sabah.
What happened after the landing is unclear, but reports from Kuala Lumpur on Thursday said Malaysian security forces had surrounded the Filipinos, whom they believed were a faction of Muslim rebels unhappy with a peace deal with the administration of President Aquino.
Rajah Mudah said he and his group were not arrested. He said he was communicating with Gen. Zul Kipli, head of the Special Branch of Sabah, the equivalent of the top intelligence officer in the Philippines.
He admitted, however, that he and his group were surrounded by Malaysian police and special forces.
The standoff between the Malaysian authorities and Rajah Mudah's group has sparked one of the biggest security scares in recent years in Sabah, which is less than an hour by speedboat from the southernmost Philippine province of Tawi-Tawi.
To ascertain facts
The presidential office was reluctant to meddle in the reported incursion into Sabah by "100 armed Filipinos" claiming to be descendants of the Sultan of Sulu.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte indicated in a briefing for reporters in the Palace yesterday that the government was not sure about what was going on in Sabah.
She said the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur had sent a police attache to Sabah to ascertain "what's really happening".
Valte said the government would provide assistance "to any Filipino abroad", but added that on the Sabah standoff, "we would like to ascertain the facts first".
Unaware of the situation in Lahad Datu, Philippine officials said the Filipinos were unarmed civilians who had been promised land.
Citing information from Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, Valte told reporters yesterday that the Filipinos were unarmed.
But Rajah Mudah's claim that he was surrounded by his own security forces indicated the dearth of information in the government about the move taken by the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
In a statement released yesterday, the Department of Foreign Affairs said Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifa Aman had spoken to Foreign Secretary
Albert del Rosario and assured him that the Malaysians would respect the rights of the Filipinos in the Sabah standoff.
The statement said the Malaysian government had resorted to "negotiations to encourage" the Filipinos "to leave peacefully".
Both the Philippine military and the Malaysian military had established that the Filipinos' activity in Sabah had no approval from the Philippine government, the DFA said.
"In this regard, we therefore urge these concerned individuals to return to their homes and families," the DFA said.
Idjirani said that before the signing of the agreement, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (Opapp) invited the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to what was supposed to be a consultation on a peace deal with the MILF.
He said he was asked to give a lecture on the stand of the Sultanate of Sulu at a forum held at the University of the Philippines College of Law.
"We thought finally the government of President Aquino wanted a complete and comprehensive resolution management to the peace, security and economic problems of territories in Mindanao by consulting with us. But it was just talk," Idjirani said in English and Filipino.
"The framework agreement was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They just pretended to consult us," he said.
He said the government encouraged the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to lead "peace caravans" and they complied. He showed pictures of such a caravan taken in Tawi-Tawi last year. The pictures showed members of the Kiram royal family and their followers participating in the caravan.
Sultanate not mentioned
But the next thing the heirs knew, he said, the framework agreement had been signed without any mention of the "historic and sovereign rights" of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo to territories included in the agreement.
"Until the government includes the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, no lasting and significant peace will come to Mindanao," Idjirani said.
"They should have seen that in the failure of the peace agreement with the Moro National Liberation Front of Nur Misuari," he said.
"We thought the administration of President Aquino gave weight to ancestral and historic agreements. We were clearly wrong," he added.
He said the sultanate's "desire and intention" to be part of the peace process initiated by the government was expressed in a letter to former President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo dated April 13, 2009.
In that letter signed by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, he said, the government was acknowledged and referred to only as an ally in the sultanate's ancestral and historic rights over the Sulu archipelago, which includes territories covered in the preliminary peace talks between the government and the MILF.
But Arroyo's term ended in June 2010 with no agreement being reached with the MILF.
It was the Aquino administration that would clinch a preliminary peace deal with the MILF.
Idjirani said the signing of the framework agreement with the MILF led to the unification of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and their decision to proceed with claiming Sabah on their own.
Idjirani said the reported differences among the heirs were never personal but involved only policy and direction.
He said the direct descendants and heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo were Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan Bantilan Esmail Kiram III, Datu Alianapia Kiram, Datu Phugdal Kiram, Datu Baduruddin Kiram and Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, the crown prince who was tasked to lead the 1,000-strong civilian and military force to Sabah.
The "meeting of the minds" of the Kirams happened on November 11 last year in a relative's house, Idjirani said. It was during that meeting that Sultan Jamalul issued the royal decree that authorized Rajah Mudah's journey to Sabah.
With reports from Michael Lim Ubac, Jerome Aning, AFP and The Star-Asia News Network