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Government backs sultan's claim to own the state of Sabah

Defense secretary joins in wrangle with Malaysia

Government backs sultan's claim to own the state of Sabah
Sultan Jamalul Kiram of Sulu attends Friday prayers at a mosque in Metro Manila reporter, Manila

February 22, 2013

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Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said on Friday that Philippine Muslims may have a valid claim to territory in Malaysia’s Sabah state, as a group of more than 200 supporters of the Sultan of Sulu remained encircled by Malaysian forces in the disputed area of northeastern Borneo.

In the first high-level government backing of the territorial claim since Sultan Jamalul Kiram’s supporters arrived in the coastal town of Lahad Datu on February 9, Gazmin pointed out that Malaysia was paying 5,300 ringgits ($1,708) per year to lease the area from the Filipino sultan.

“If you are being paid, you have a claim, don’t you? That is your basis there. Even without saying anything, the fact [remains] that you are being paid,” he said in an interview in Manila.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima said on Thursday that her office was studying the legality of the sultan’s claim, which she said she hoped to finish in the next few days.

The Malaysian government had set a deadline of Wednesday to resolve the standoff with the sultan’s supporters but extended it until today, although there was no indication of a resolution by late afternoon.

Gazmin and the head of the Philippine army say they have been in regular contact with the Malaysian military to resolve the standoff peacefully.

“The Malaysians have been very cooperative,” added Gazmin. “Once they see our gesture that we’re trying to resolve the issue… then probably they will extend some more until such time that this is settled very peacefully.”

The Philippines navy sent six vessels and an aircraft to patrol the coast of the disputed area on Thursday.

The group involved in the standoff includes 20 men armed with machine guns.

Sultan Jamalul Kiram said at Friday prayers in Manila that his supporters would not fire their weapons.

The standoff began when he encouraged them to reassert territorial claims after an October peace deal between the government and the rebel Moro Islamic Liberation Front failed to make specific mention of Sabah, but focused instead on hotspots in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao.

Although Jamalul Kiram stepped down as the acting sultan after a failed election bid for the Senate in 2007, he retains the title after his younger brother Ismail Kiram was designated to take over.

The defense secretary said authorities had persuaded Ismail to convince his older brother to withdraw his supporters from the disputed area.

The origin of the claim dates back to the end of the 19th century during British colonial rule of Malaya and is complicated – in theory – by the Sultan of Sulu’s assertion that he is the rightful ruler of all of Sabah, one of the 13 states of Malaysia which covers more than 73,500 square kilometers.

Sabah is home to thousands of Philippine Muslims who have left areas plagued by decades of insurgency wars in adjacent Mindanao.

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