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Colonial-era dispute resurfaces as 'fake sultan' lays down claim

Ships, aircraft join Malaysian forces to blockade armed group in Sabah

Joe Torres and Steve Finch, Manila

February 21, 2013

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The Philippines dispatched six navy vessels and an aircraft off Sabah in northeastern Borneo on Thursday as tensions escalated with Malaysia after armed followers of a local sultan laid claim to a tiny corner in the northeast of the island.

Malaysia’s armed forces have surrounded more than 200 supporters of the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram, in the coastal town of Lahad Datu and on Wednesday began a food blockade after the group sailed to the area on February 9. 

Lt-Commander Gregory Gerlad Fabic, a naval spokesman, said the Philippines was ready to conduct maritime patrols with Malaysia in the disputed area. 

“We want to prevent an escalation of the issue,” Fabic said in a statement.

The sultan’s claims to the disputed area date back to when Malaya was ruled by the British and involve a sovereignty issue that has never been fully resolved by the Philippines and Malaysia. 

The dispute resurfaced after a peace deal between the Philippines government and communist rebels in October left out mention of the sultanate, a parcel of land that lies adjacent to the restive south Philippines island of Mindanao.

Newspapers in the Philippines have this week reported on rising fears that the standoff could negatively impact the fragile peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, not least because Malaysia is acting as an intermediary after bringing the two sides together. 

Abraham Idjirani, secretary-general of the Sultanate of Sulu, said on Thursday that the sultan’s followers would not bow to pressure from Malaysia – and increasingly the Philippines government – by leaving the disputed area.

“The negotiations being undertaken favor one side only – Malaysia,” he said, adding that Malaysian authorities were responsible for human rights abuses against the sultan’s followers by stopping food from reaching the disputed area. 

The saga took another twist on Thursday after rival Sharif Ibrahim Pulalun insisted he was the real sultan of Sulu, denying the claim by Jamalul Kiram. 

“Nothing will come from the ongoing Sabah standoff because those who are behind it are pretenders to the position of Sultan of Sulu,” he said ahead of a press conference scheduled to take place in the southern city of Zamboanga on Monday in which he said he would substantiate his rival claim.

In response, Idjirani said that it was not uncommon for “so many sultans coming out” in the Philippines, adding that Kiram had been in recent negotiations with the Malaysian government “as the real sultan.” 

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