Malaysian security forces found the bodies of 13 Philippine Muslims who invaded the eastern state of Sabah last month as they continued searching for more than 200 insurgents following an aerial and ground assault.
Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein gave the death toll on Malaysia’s TV3, which broadcast pictures of some of the bodies in graves. Earlier yesterday, Fatima Kiram, the wife of self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram, said his 214 followers in Sabah survived the barrage and are receiving support from Filipinos who live in the state.
“The mopping-up and search operation will take some time,” Hussein said, adding that no Malaysian security forces had died in the latest operation. “The area is quite big.”
The battle to regain control of territory on Borneo Island that the sultanate lost more than a century ago erupted weeks before elections in both countries. It also comes as Philippine President Benigno Aquino aims to conclude a peace deal with a Muslim separatist group that Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak helped to broker.
Aquino, on a visit to nearby Mindanao island yesterday, said the incident was starting to hurt relations with Malaysia. The Kirams had “dragged” the nation into the dispute, he said.
“Our relationship was getting better and better and then this came along,” Aquino said, referring to Malaysia. “It could be a wasted opportunity.”
Najib said the March 5 assault came after negotiations with the Kirams failed. Three F-18 and five Hawk fighter aircraft were used in the attack, state-run Bernama reported.
Aquino’s administration in a statement yesterday accused the Kirams of deceiving the media by releasing a photograph purportedly of Malaysian security forces that actually showed Thai military casualties in 2007.
“It has called into question the credibility of Jamalul Kiram III’s branch of the family and their deadly misadventure,” Aquino’s office said. “We must all now wonder: what other assertions made by the Kiram party are false?”
Speaking later in Davao City, Aquino said “it will be impossible” for the insurgents to achieve their goal.
Jamalul Kiram, who has a home in Manila and is receiving dialysis treatment for kidney failure, called yesterday for direct talks with Aquino to end the incursion. His brother Agbimuddin Kiram, who is leading operations for the family in Sabah, is “ready to die,” Jamalul Kiram told DZMM radio.
About 800,000 Filipinos live in Sabah, Malaysia’s second-biggest state by land area that has about 3.1 million people, according to Malaysia government statistics. In Tawau district, where the fighting is centered, about half of the population is considered “non-Malaysian citizens,” the data show.
Kiram’s group is starting to blend in with local Sabahans, Malaysia’s TV3 news channel reported, citing police. Security forces yesterday detained four people with Malaysian passports in Semporna, a town in Sabah, suspected of helping Kiram’s group.
Eight Malaysian police officers and more than 30 Kiram loyalists have been killed in shootouts since March 1. Malaysia Foreign Minister Anifah Aman said after meeting Philippine counterpart Albert del Rosario that his government considers Kiram’s group “terrorists.” Del Rosario disagreed with the label, while acknowledging that “acts of terrorism” may have taken place.
“We’ll continue to explore avenues that will possibly lead to a peaceful resolution despite what has happened,” Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for Aquino, told reporters in Manila yesterday.
Developments in Sabah aren’t significant enough to affect the supply-demand balance in the palm oil industry, Plantation Industries and Commodities Minister Bernard Dompok said at a conference in Kuala Lumpur March 5. Indonesia evacuated more than 600 workers from palm-oil plantations in Sabah, the Jakarta Post reported yesterday.
Malaysia’s benchmark stock index, the FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index, rose 0.6 percent to its highest close since Jan. 18.
The Philippines will hold elections for its 285-member House of Representatives and half of its 24 Senate seats on May 13. Najib must dissolve parliament by April 28 and hold elections within 60 days as his ruling coalition seeks to maintain a 55-year grip on power.
The Sulu Sultanate, which dates back to the 14th century, says it leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, an agreement that Malaysia views as a secession of the region. Sabah fell under British control after World War II and joined Malaysia in 1963, shortly after the sultanate ceded sovereignty to the Philippines.
The incident comes several months after Najib’s government helped Aquino reach a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Muslim separatist group in the southern Philippines. The Moro National Liberation Front, a splinter rebel group, called the accord -- which will expand the country’s autonomous Muslim region -- a conspiracy between Aquino and Najib for Malaysia to retain sovereignty of Sabah.
Aquino risks putting the country in “total chaos” if he orders the arrest of Jamalul Kiram, said Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front.
“It’s unbecoming for a head of state to be siding with the enemy of his people,” Misuari said March 5. “What kind of leader are you if you abandon your own people for the sake of his friendship with colonial troublemaker Malaysia?”