KUALA LUMPUR, March 2 — The Lahad Datu standoff could widen into a civil war engulfing Sabah, a Philippine separatist leader has warned as a Muslim rebel army moved to entrench itself in the Borneo state.
A Filipino rebel group, believed to number over 100 armed men, has refused to drop their ownership on Sabah — now part of Malaysia — and has sworn to fight on even as the Philippines Foreign Department declared the weeks-long standoff against Malaysian security forces over following a shootout that killed 15 men and hurt three others.
“I am afraid there will be a civil war in Sabah because thousands of Bangsamoro are residing in Sabah,” Gapul Hajirul, political chief of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), was reported as saying today by the Philippine Star news portal.
“It’s only MNLF chairman Nur (Misuari) who could decide on the matter. Whatever his decision, we will follow.
“Our Tausug brothers and sisters of Sulu and the Samals in Tawi-Tawi were saddened and are hurting by the turn of the events,” he was quoted as saying.
More than 8,500 Filipinos, mostly Tausugs or Suluk tribesmen, are residing in Sabah and are potential supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu, the news portal reported.
The rebel Sulu army, led by Agbimuddin Kiram, has also refused to quit Sabah despite appeals from both Manila and Putrajaya, declaring the standoff far from over even after losing 12 men in a crossfire with Malaysian police yesterday.
“No, the standoff is not over, unless there’s a concrete understanding or agreement that can be reached by the three parties,” Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the group, was quoted as saying by Philippine news portal Inquirer in Manila.
“Our stand is the same. Rajah Mudah (Crown Prince) Agbimuddin Kiram will stay put in the area to discipline [our followers]. But if the Malaysians will attack, they will do the same,” he said.
But Idjirani said the group was still open to peace, saying: “The sultan is still open (to talks) because our advocacy is still peace.”
The Star today reported Idjirani as saying that the Sultanate of Sulu wants a ceasefire so that their men can bury those who had died in the gunfight yesterday.
“Malaysia is a Muslim nation so they should understand that we need to bury our dead,” he said in a phone interview with the Malaysian daily, adding that he hoped Malaysia would “reconsider its position.”
The English-language daily also reported Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib as dismissing rumours that armed men from the southern Philippines were coming in to the state to bolster the rebel group.
“We have checked and found the reports to be untrue. Our security at the sea border is tight and our operations are continuing,” Hamza said yesterday evening at a media briefing.
He said that the Sulu rebels were now cornered within a smaller area, adding that it was believed that none of them had escaped the police cordon.
Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak yesterday said the rebels should surrender or face the consequences, saying that full powers had been given to the Inspector-General of Police and the Armed Forces Chief to resolve the matter.
About 180 Filipino rebels, including 30 gunmen, invaded Sabah on February 9 and had refused to leave before yesterday’s fatal shootout, despite pleas from the Malaysian and Philippine governments.
Philippine Foreign Affairs secretary Albert Del Rosario reportedly requested yesterday for full access to the rebel group so that the Philippine government can provide medical treatment and consular assistance.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer yesterday quoted Free Radio Sarawak as saying that the Felda Sahabat 17 oil palm plantation near Kampung Tanduo, where the rebels have been holed up, was filled with an “uncanny silence”.
Lahad Datu, which is about 130km away from the battle site, was also described as a “ghost town’, with all shops in the town centre closed as army patrols moved about, with some standing guard at schools and the district hospital.
The armed group, suspected of being a faction of a Philippine Muslim rebel group, claims to belong to the “royal army” of the Sulu sultanate.
The bizarre drama had threatened to stir tension between Southeast Asian neighbours Malaysia and the Philippines, whose ties have been periodically frayed by security and migration problems caused by a porous sea border.
News wire Reuters has reported that Malaysia pays a token sum to the Sultanate of Sulu each year for the “rental” of Sabah — an arrangement that stretches back to British colonial times.