Philippine president Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino has threatened a Muslim clan leader with prosecution if he fails to end the armed occupation of a fishing village in neighbouring Malaysia.
“If you choose not to co-operate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way,” Mr Aquino said in a televised speech on Tuesday. His words were aimed at Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants to the ceremonial title of Sultan of Sulu, whose 180 relatives and followers have been in a stand-off with Malaysian security forces for two weeks.
But Mr Kiram and his followers, who hail from a remote island in the southeast Philippines, looked set to defy the president’s warning. His spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said the sultan would not issue an order for his followers to return home from Sabah until the Malaysian government agrees to discuss their demand for recognition of their historic property claims on Sabah.
“They will not move unless there is a principled understanding and agreement,” Mr Idjirani said in a radio interview minutes after Mr Aquino issued his appeal.
The two-week impasse threatens to entangle the Philippines and Malaysia in a fresh diplomatic dispute, and unravel a peace deal that Kuala Lumpur helped broker between Manila and a Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines, analysts warned.
Mr Aquino said the stand-off also puts in jeopardy the jobs of several hundreds of thousands of mostly Muslim Filipinos working as temporary workers in Sabah.
The sultan’s followers arrived in the coastal town of Lahad Datu, in the northeastern part of Borneo, on February 9 to assert their right to stay in what they consider to be their historic property, said Mr Idjirani. About 30 of the sultan’s followers are believed to have weapons, and they are prepared to fight if removed by force, the spokesman added.
The Kiram royal family’s claims to Sabah stem from its acquisition by the Sulu sultanate in the 17th century, as reward for helping the Sultan of Brunei to quell a rebellion. Later Sulu rulers ceded the territory to the British trading companies, which, in turn, transferred sovereign rights over Sabah to Britain in 1946. When the British granted independence to the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, Sabah was one of the territories turned over to Malaysia, which continues to pay a token rent to the heirs of the Sulu sultan to this day.
Mr Aquino has warned the sultan that he could be pursued for violating Philippine laws against provoking war or exposing Filipinos to reprisals, unless he orders his followers in Sabah to withdraw. “We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point,” he said.
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