Sabah, Sulu and the Kirams (Part 3: Why Sabah, Why Now?)

On October 15th 2012, the Republic of Philippines signed a historic peace pact with Muslim rebels group, Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), brokered by Malaysia. With this pact, the four decades of guerilla warfare by Muslim separatists, which had already claimed 150,000 lives, could finally end by 2016. At last! The long-awaited peace within the Malay Nusantara could now be, within an arm’s reach!

Under this 2012 Peace Pact, MILF agreed to abandon their struggle towards an independent Muslim nation, in return to wider autonomy, wealth and distribution of power.


The last peace agreement made by the Philippines government was in 1996, with almost similar promise of autonomy with the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). MNLF was then, the largest separatist rebel group and was headed by Nur Misuari. The 1996 Peace Agreement, however, fell apart when under the rebels’ rule, there were rampant cases of corruptions and massive poverty amongst the people of Southern and Island Philippines. Particularly amongst the Muslim population.

The fact that Nur Misuari, after having signed a peace treaty and appointed as Mindanao’s Governor, instigated a rebellion for full independence in Jolo, worsen the situation.

Hence, to ensure the new 2012 peace pact’s success, three separatist groups were left out, i.e., Misuari’s MNLF, Mindanao’s Abu Sayyaf and the Sulu Sultanate of Kirams. These three groups, each of which shared the same cause, were not only left behind in their pursuit of power, but also access to wealth.

Malaysia’s renewed commitment to the peace process, together with the recognition of the MILF, stunted the rebels’ ultimate aim towards the amalgamation of an independent Islamic Sultanate of Sulu. The rebels’ future seems bleak, especially with the lack of fund and arms.

On 12th February 2013, an army of 200 Muslim separatist rebels landed on the shores of Lahad Datu, Sabah. They called themselves, the Sulu Royal Army, headed by sultan-aspirant Jamalul Kiram III’s younger brother.


Interestingly, the brother-cum-rebel leader, Agbimuddin@Azzimuddie Kiram (picture above) possess a Malaysian identity card, a Malaysian citizenship and had in the 70s served as the Assistant District Officer of Kudat, Sabah, under an assumed name.

Villagers claim that Agbimuddin, known locally as Datu Puing, was always guarded by four men, including a mystic man called, ‘Datu Titing’. Strangely enough, during the Balambangan Massacre, Sulu’s Sultan Israel sent one ‘Datu Tating’ as a decoy to the British garrison, prior to the brutal attack (see The Sulu Character article).


What were their motives? Why now?

Most Malaysians were baffled with the unexpected intrusion. Many still are.

Have we not been like a brother to you?” When the Sulu and many other Muslim Filipinos claimed that they were discriminated against by Manila, it was the Malaysians who handed them a helping hand. When certain Sulu and Mindanao people showed how their revered place of worship, the masjids, were often frequented by pigs; the Malaysians pull out several hats to help build the masjids‘ outer gates.

In fact, Kuala Lumpur exercised an open-door policy so that her Filipino Muslim neighbours can make a decent living within her border. Many Filipino islanders (including the Taosugs) reportedly applied for Malaysian citizenship, and many others had over-extended their stay in Sabah.

So why the sudden aggression? Why now?

The senior sultan-aspirant who bears the title Jamalul Kiram III—though not the son of Jamalul Kiram II, the last legitimate Sultan of Sulu–had initially claimed that he had sent his army to “reclaim their ancestral land, Sabah.” A week later, he proclaimed that “his men went back to their homeland and only wish to renegotiate the yearly tribute (which he referred to as rental payment) with the government of Malaysia.”

While his men killed eight Malaysian police force–six of whom were severely mutilated, one lost a head, while another had both eyes popped out– sultan-aspirant Kiram seek public sympathy by claiming, “he is the poorest Sultan in the world.”

And he further called upon fellow Filipinos and the Philippines government to join hand-in-hand in his ‘holy war’ to reclaim Sabah.

Malaysia’s government responded the rebels’ sheer cruelty with heavy bombardments on the latter’s location. The sultan-aspirant quickly call for an immediate ceasefire and pleaded for United Nation’s intervention. Malaysia rejected the ceasefire call, since the sultan-aspirant does not represent a sovereign country. Malaysia cannot afford to give the armed militants a leeway to regroup, only to be confronted with yet another deadly attack. The rebels were instead classified as, terrorists.

Then, the sultan-aspirant’s daughter, Jacel Kiram finally admitted that they are not really interested in reclaiming Sabah. Instead they would be willing to forgo their claim totally, if Malaysia is willing to pay financial compensation, in the tune of ONE Billion Malaysian Ringgit.

Money!!! Finally, the cat is out of the bag.

Should Malaysia pay the rebels off to rid herself from the hostile 200 irritants? The issue isn’t just money. There are more to consider, than meets the eye.

1) The Kirams sent 200 militant terrorists to pressure Malaysia into paying ONE BILLION Ringgit. One Billion is the price they named for Sabah, albeit, the fraction of Sabah that, according to Brunei historians, was never ceded to them by the Brunei Sultanate.

2) Assuming that Malaysia relented to paying sultan-aspirant Jamalul Kiram III, could the latter guarantee that the remaining 8-9 Kiram sultan-aspirants would not do the same? What if they (the remaining sultan-aspirant Kirams) too were to send their own hired-militants on the pretext that Jamalul Kiram has neither been recognized, nor appointed as the official Sultan of Sulu, in the first place?

3) Jamalul Kiram III does not have an army. He could barely afford to sustain his own medical expenses (regular dialysis treatments). So, whose army was sent to Lahad Datu? And why did Nur Misuari quickly came to the rescue by supporting the invasion, and even went to the extent of threatening the Goverment of Malaysia of full MNLF retaliation should ‘the sultan’s men’ be harmed?

4) The ultimate objective shared by Abu Sayaf, MNLF, and to some extent even MILF, was to reestablish an independent Islamic kingdom in the Sulu Archipelago. The ‘Greater Sulu Kingdom’ is a dream to bring back the former glory of the Sulu Sultanate, within the Sulu Archipelago. According to old maps, the Sulu Archipelago would include, the Sulu islands, Palawan, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan, Zamboanga, half of Mindanao and a third of Sabah.

Should Malaysia pay the amount demanded, the money could be used to better equip the rebels with modern arms. A dire situation which could result in total instability and economic upheaval within the Southeast Asia region. With China’s eminent increase in influence and military spending, the last thing Southeast Asia needs is, insurgency.

Instead of WORKING TOGETHER to fight off separatist arm rebels, both Malaysia and the Philippines could find themselves stuck with their own guerilla warfares. Kuala Lumpur fighting on Sabah soil, whereas, Manila in Mindanao. Only this time, both countries could be up against better-equipped rebel terrorists.

In lieu of the upcoming 13th Malaysian general election, the urgency at which she needs to resolve the invasion, is inherent. However, in doing so, she must not heed to the rebels’ demands. Malaysia must not stoop so low as to negotiate with terrorists. Certainly, not with terrorists-without-conscience. The munafiqoons.

– DM


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