When Philippine President Benigno Aquino signed a peace deal with Muslim rebels in October, the 74-year-old sultan of Sulu sat in a wheelchair at the ceremony waiting for someone to speak with him. Nobody did.
“It turned out we were just decorations,” Sultan Jamalul Kiram said in an interview yesterday at his two-story house on Manila’s outskirts, where he stays while receiving dialysis treatment for kidney failure. “My wife and I felt like we were treated like flower vases. I felt bad. It was terrible. They ignored the sultan of Sulu.”
Four months later, Kiram’s followers invaded Malaysia’s Sabah state, leading to clashes that have killed 60 people in the past seven days, including eight Malaysian police officers. Kiram, a law school dropout who once pursued a career as a folk dancer, says his 200 armed followers now surrounded by police on Borneo Island won’t surrender.
The crisis threatens to disrupt the creation of a new autonomous zone in the southern Philippines that is key to the peace deal as competing groups vie for control of an area bordering Malaysia with billions of dollars in mineral wealth. Aquino plans to resolve remaining details on wealth sharing in the coming weeks to end a four-decade insurgency that has killed about 200,000 people.
“It made it clearer who was going to win and lose among the various groups that make up the Muslim community in the Philippines,” said Bryony Lau, an analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, referring to the October agreement. “Someone like the sultan is probably someone who wasn’t going to get a lot out of this.”
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, who must call an election by the end of next month, yesterday rejected a cease-fire and called on Kiram’s group to surrender unconditionally. Kiram countered by saying he’d offer to swap six Malaysian prisoners, including police and military officials, for 10 members of his group who were captured.
Najib has been helping Aquino negotiate the deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, or MILF, covering territory owned by ancient sultanates across the Sulu archipelago and parts of Palawan and Mindanao islands in the Philippines. Kiram and the Moro National Liberation Front, a rival separatist group known as MNLF, wanted the agreement to include Malaysia’s Sabah, which the Sulu sultanate ruled for centuries and still claims.
At the October ceremony, Aquino and the MILF signed an agreement to establish a new political entity called Bangsamoro that will replace the failed Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao set up in 1989. The 11,000-strong MILF agreed to abandon its pursuit of a separate state in return for more power, revenue and territory, according to the deal, which must be passed by Congress and approved by a local referendum.
The autonomous zone covers the Sulu archipelago and about 20 percent of Mindanao Island, which has about 40 percent of the country’s $840 billion of mineral reserves, according to government estimates. The MNLF has more support in the Sulu island chain, home mostly to ethnic Tausugs who are fighting in Malaysia and see Sabah as ancestral territory. The MILF is stronger among ethnic Maguindanaons, who were once ruled by a different sultanate together with some parts of Mindanao.
Kiram said he felt slighted that Aquino didn’t consult him during the talks with the MILF, and only attended the October ceremony because he thought it was inappropriate to decline a presidential invitation. He questioned whether the MILF would fight for Sabah and chided Aquino for threatening to press charges against him for the Malaysia incursion.
“I was so grateful when Aquino at his inauguration speech said that the Filipino people were his boss,” Kiram said. “Now it’s different. The Malaysians are his boss. His boss is Najib Razak.”
Kiram, who ran for a senate seat under former President Gloria Arroyo’s ticket in 2007, denied taking money from her. The Philippines holds congressional elections in May.
Kiram called himself the “poorest sultan of the world” and said he wanted talks with Malaysia over his family’s “historical right” to Sabah. Mutahmeen Pastor Saycon, Kiram’s adviser who sat with him during the interview, denied that money motivated the invasion.
“All the sultan and his family want is for Malaysia to recognize him as the sultan of Sulu and North Borneo,” Saycon said.
The Sulu Sultanate, which dates back to about the 15th 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.
Aquino, on a two-day visit to Mindanao this week, said his administration is building a case against Kiram’s family. He sent Mar Roxas, a member of his cabinet, to islands in the Sulu archipelago to explain the government’s actions, and expressed concern that the incident would damage ties with Malaysia.
“Are the interests of the Kirams the same as the national interest?” Aquino said two days ago in General Santos City on Mindanao. “They’re dragging all of us into their fight.”
Aquino and the MILF last month set up a 15-member transition commission to draft laws governing the area, and aim to conclude wealth-sharing arrangements in the coming weeks. Xstrata Plc, Sumitomo Metal Mining Co. and Dole Food Co. are among companies with investments in other parts of Mindanao, the second-biggest island in the Philippines.
The two sides are considering a proposal that would give Muslim rebels a 75 percent share of revenue in the autonomous region, MILF leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim said in a Dec. 5 interview. The MILF is staying out of the current conflict between the Kirams and Malaysia, Bernama reported on March 6, citing an interview with Ebrahim.
While rival separatist group MNLF is “very sympathetic” to Kiram, its 100,000 armed members won’t join the fight in Sabah, Chairman Nur Misuari said in a phone interview yesterday. The MNLF, which was not a party to the Aquino-MILF talks, has accused the central government of reneging on a 1996 peace agreement reached with former President Fidel Ramos.
“Even if it’s signed, it won’t last long” because some of MILF leader Ebrahim’s supporters are unhappy with the October agreement, Misuari said. The issue of Sabah is “a dormant volcano waiting to explode” and could destabilize the region if left unresolved, he said.
In Manila, Kiram sits in his bed watching the latest developments on a flat-screen television. In a soft voice, he said he’s visited Sabah many times.
“I get this feeling of being at ease,” Kiram said. “When I’m in Sabah, I always wish that I won’t have to come home.”