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Restating a claim and a threat
Publication Date : 02-02-2014
The Kiram family’s rickety claim to Sabah in East Malaysia continues, despite historical facts, current realities and the passing of individual leaders of the clan.
No sooner had last year’s “Sulu sultanate” threat to Sabah subsided than a new one popped into place.
On January 21, Sulu “Sultan” Esmail Kiram II appealed to the Philippine government to renew the claim to Sabah peacefully, or else his group of fighters would repeat last February’s armed incursion.
It was a clear demand and a thinly veiled threat of violence. It was also a threat to the legitimacy of the Malaysian and Philippine governments, and to the state of their bilateral relations, in effect amounting to blackmail and extortion.
Last year a ragtag band of armed militants illegally entered Sabah to occupy two villages near Lahad Datu to press their claim to the territory. The incursion was inspired by then ailing “sultan” Jamalul Kiram III and headed by his younger brother Agbimuddin Kiram.
Jamalul died in October while still holding fast to the claim. The eldest of his surviving brothers, Esmail, was “declared” sultan from among some half dozen claimants to the “throne”.
Besides succeeding Jamalul recently according to one faction of the Kiram family, Esmail had also been a claimant rivalling Jamalul before becoming his brother’s regent.
Notwithstanding the complexity of Sulu’s supposed relationship with the former Bruneian territory preceding British North Borneo, today’s eastern seaboard of Sabah, all the Sulu claims have been dubious since their 17th-century origins.
Apart from their limited curiosity value, these claims have also been negated following the establishment of the Republic of the Philippines and the Federation of Malaysia.
The former seat of power of the defunct Sulu Sultanate, Jolo Island, is part of southern Mindanao in the Philippines. Far-flung Jolo has since figured more prominently as the base of the Abu Sayyaf bandits.
That Sabah, including the eastern portion that was the former North Borneo, has been part of the sovereign nation of Malaysia for more than half a century is an established fact of international relations as well as for institutions like the United Nations.
Neither is the Kirams’ claim to Sabah territory a form of ancestral claim or an expression of indigenous rights. The Suluk or Tausug ethnic group that the Kirams represent is not indigenous to Borneo, as confirmed by their claim resting entirely on an earlier (and similarly disputed) assertion to have been granted the territory by Brunei.
Interestingly, Esmail and Jamalul are sons of Punjungan Kiram, who was Sulu “sultan” between 1980 and 1983 before he decided to abdicate to Sabah to become a Malaysian instead. Punjungan himself was the younger brother of “Sultan” Esmail Kiram I, who “reigned” when Malaysia was formed in 1963.
In the gestation period for the new Malaysian federation that included Sarawak and Singapore, neither Malayan leaders nor British officials overseeing the process were under any obligation to continue payments to the Kirams based on their claim.
But the family and the Philippine government had objected to the formation of Malaysia. They said they would relent only if two conditions were met.
For the Philippine government, acceptance of Sabah as a part of Malaysia was conditional upon a UN-approved referendum determining the wishes of the Sabah people. That was duly undertaken by the Cobbold Commission, which found a third of the respondents favoured joining Malaysia outright and another third favoured joining with conditions (subsequently, the 20-point agreement) as acknowledged by then UN Secretary-General U Thant.
For the Kirams, approval of Sabah becoming part of Malaysia was conditional upon Malaysia continuing with the annual payments made earlier by the British. While Malaysia acceded to the condition, albeit the payments have reportedly been made to another Kiram claimant to the throne, these other Kirams appear to have forgotten about their part of the deal.
The misplaced and other-worldly air in the current “sultanate’s” claim to Sabah is reflected in Esmail Kiram II’s recent pronouncements.
He insists on pursuing the claim despite his uncle Esmail Kiram I’s agreement to drop it after Malaysia continued the annual payments. He wants UN support for his cause, despite the UN overseeing and approving the formation of Malaysia with Sabah.
He further argues that if the Philippine government considered his community as Filipino nationals, it should act to further their claim to Sabah territory. Since the claim is a private one of the Kiram family, and no longer that of an expired sultanate, the Philippines which has no claim by itself has no grounds to pursue it.
Although Jamalul Kiram had previously granted the Philippine government the authority to pursue the claim on Sulu’s behalf, he subsequently withdrew the mandate. Manila therefore has no basis even to consider the claim beyond a sense of over-extended sentiment among some members of the Tausug community.
Esmail Kiram II’s recent statements revealed nothing new. They showed nothing original either in the arguments for the claim or the methods employed to pursue it.
Why, then, were the statements made at all? As usual, such pronouncements were occasioned by certain events at the time.
A trial was underway in Kota Kinabalu where 30 of last year’s intruders stood accused of terrorist acts. A reassertion of the claim could be a way of boosting the morale of the “troops” and encouraging others to rally to their cause.
Besides, the first anniversary of last February’s incursion was fast approaching. Esmail’s reference to a repeat of the trespass could be a call to a “first anniversary bash”, or rather another bash-up, one year after the first.
More significantly perhaps, his threat was a way to mark his new status – at least within his Kiram faction – as “sultan”. Even more important than making a declaration of status to the Malaysian and Philippine governments is a declaration to the other claimants to the sultanate.
Like any newly inducted politician, a newly installed “sultan” is expected to prove his credentials by making certain obligatory statements.
Given the labyrinth of intrigue for claimants to Sulu’s imagined throne, no self-respecting Tausug leader can afford to be less of a politician than those in Manila.
However, that should not mean that any faction of the Kirams or any other group has ceased to be a substantive threat to Sabah, Malaysia or the Philippines. So long as the means exist to put together a band of armed fighters for a supposed cause, the threat of violence remains.
The further problem that groups like the Sulu intruders pose is that, like terrorists, they employ guerilla tactics that are harder to detect and neutralise. Governments at state and national levels employ more formal tactics in their order of battle that are more visible and predictable.
In a siege or standoff, however, state security forces are more likely to prevail because of superior firepower and training. But the damage that terrorists and their guerrilla tactics incur, at least initially, can never be underestimated because of their element of surprise and a frequent lack of scruples.
In their nondescript form, they can get closer to their determined targets than opponents in uniform and insignia. Their supporters and sympathisers can and do operate as “invisibly”.
Thus they continue to challenge the authorities everywhere. The security forces can never rest comfortably by assuming an automatic edge in any firefight or skirmish.