Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned a Muslim leader he will face charges if he fails to order a group of armed followers who invaded a Malaysian coastal town two weeks ago to return home.
About 180 people, including 30 who may have weapons, have been in a standoff with Malaysian police since occupying Lahad Datu in Sabah state on Feb. 12. The sultanate of the southern province of Sulu has claimed the area on Borneo island for centuries.
“This is a situation that cannot persist,” Aquino told Jamalul Kiram, who claims to be sultan of Sulu, in a televised speech from Manila today. “If you are truly the leader of your people, you should be one with us in ordering your followers to return home peacefully.”
The incident revives a decades-old sovereignty dispute several months after Malaysia helped broker a deal between Aquino’s government and another Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines. The Sulu sultanate says it leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, an agreement Malaysia views as a cessation of territory.
Kiram’s followers won’t leave Sabah without an agreement with Malaysia to “start talking about the long process of settling” the sultan’s claim on Sabah, his spokesman Abraham Idjirani said in a television interview with ABS-CBN News.
Jamalul’s title of sultan is disputed by other members of the Kiram family, who claim it for themselves, according to the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The Province of Sulu’s website lists Ismael Kiram as sultan.
The Philippines and Malaysia are cooperating in an effort to resolve the standoff peacefully, Aquino said. The deadlock puts Filipino workers in Sabah at risk and disrupts commerce with Sulu, he said, adding that the sultan may face charges of provoking war.
“We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point,” Aquino said.
The sultan felt excluded from peace negotiations between Aquino and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and may be trying to derail those talks, said Benito Lim, a political science professor at the Ateneo de Manila University.
“Aquino just wants the peace talks to be over,” he said. “He doesn’t want another problem.”