MANILA (AFP) - Followers of a Philippine sultan who crossed to the Malaysian state of Sabah this month will not leave and are reclaiming the area as their ancestral territory, the sultan said Sunday amid a tense standoff.
Sultan Jamalul Kiram said his followers - some 400 people including 20 gunmen - were resolute in staying despite being cornered by security forces, with the Kuala Lumpur government insisting the group return to the Philippines.
"Why should we leave our own home? In fact they (the Malaysians) are paying rent (to us)," he told reporters in Manila.
"Our followers will stay in (the Sabah town of) Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home," he said.
The sultan did not directly threaten violence but said "there will be no turning back for us."
Despite Kiram's pronouncement, Malacañang has no urgent plans to revive the country's decades-old claim over Sabah as it remained hopeful for a "peaceful ending" to the situation involving a group of Filipinos in the disputed territory in Malaysia.
Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte acknowledged that the country has a standing ownership claim over Sabah but the government will leave the issue "dormant" for the meantime.
"From what I understand, the claim is there and it hasn't moved for quite some time. I also remember that the President did make mention of it - that it's been dormant. Let's leave it at that for the moment," Valte said.
She explained that it was former President Diosdado Macapagal who made the formal claim on Sabah but she is unaware why previous governments did not push the claim. "At least for this particular administration, the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) will really be in a better position to explain to you how the claim has come to be and what the status is at the moment," she said.
Valte was reacting to calls by some groups asking the President Aquino to actively pursue the country's ownership of Sabah following the standoff between Malaysian forces and a group of armed Filipinos to press their claim on the island.
Malaysian officials have said that many of the (Sultan's) group have weapons, but Kiram insisted his followers made the trip unarmed.
"If they have arms, they were already in Sabah," the sultan said.
The southern Philippine-based Islamic sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the stand-off, and its heirs have been receiving a nominal yearly compensation package from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement for possession of Sabah.
Kiram said he was prompted to send the group to Sabah after the sultanate was left out of a framework agreement sealed in October between Manila and Filipino Muslim rebels, which paves the way for an autonomous area in the southern Philippines that is home to the Muslim minority of the largely-Christian nation.
The sultanate's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, later said the sultan's brother Raja Muda Abimuddin Kiram, who led the group to Sabah, had told him via telephone that the party was preparing to stay.
"The objective is to reside now in that place permanently, considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty," he told AFP.
Idjirani said there were about 400 followers of the sultanate in the area, including about 20 who were armed.
On Thursday Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put the number at between 80 to 100 gunmen.
Idjirani said the group would not instigate violence but would resist if provoked.
"We recognize the capability of Malaysia. We don't have the arms and capacity but we have the historical truth," he said, adding that the group's "fate is to see the recognition they are entitled to... or they die defending their ancestral rights."
Idjirani said President Benigno Aquino's senior aides had been in contact with the sultan and were willing to deliver a letter to the Malaysian government on his behalf for negotiations.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan II said the Philippines should tread carefully in dealing with Malaysian authorities in resolving the standoff in Sabah and ensure it will not affect the government's ongoing peace process and framework agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Honasan said it is important that the Philippine government is not misinterpreted by the Malaysian government lest the issue regarding the territorial claim of the Sultanate of Sulu affect its bilateral relations with Malaysia and neighboring Asian countries as well.
But Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) Secretary Teresita Q. Deles assured that the ongoing stand-off has no effect on the ongoing peace talks between the MILF. (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling, Hannah L. Torregoza, and Francis T. Wakefield)