March 12 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysian forces said they killed a top commander of a Muslim armed group from the Philippines that invaded Sabah, a claim disputed by the clan as violence continued in the monthlong struggle over ownership of the commodities-rich state.
Haji Musa, a general from the Royal Army of the Sulu Sultanate, was killed yesterday, Hamza Taib, Sabah’s police chief, said in a televised media briefing. Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram, said by phone that the general was “very much alive.”
A Malaysian soldier and three insurgents were shot dead in a gunfight this morning, Defense Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said in a mobile text message to Bloomberg News today, bringing the death toll to more than 60 people this month. Kiram’s followers invaded Sabah to assert a centuries-old ownership claim over the state.
The incursion has been a distraction for Prime Minister Najib Razak as he prepares for polls that will determine whether his National Front coalition can extend its 55-year grip on power. He’ll probably dissolve parliament by the end of this month for elections after raising civil servants’ salaries, analysts including Ibrahim Suffian said.
“Najib has gotten a boost through his handling of the insurgency,” Ibrahim, an analyst at the Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, said today in a phone interview. “It has increased patriotism in the country. At the same time, pay rises will help secure a traditional base of support among civil servants and their families.”
The prime minister must dissolve parliament by April 28, after which the Election Commission is required to hold a vote within 60 days. Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin arrived in Sabah today to visit the operations center.
The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has fallen 2.2 percent after closing at a record on Jan. 7 on concern the National Front could lose seats in the election. The benchmark, Asia’s worst performer this year, closed 0.1 percent down in Kuala Lumpur today. The ringgit has dropped 1.7 percent this year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.
A Philippine Muslim group loyal to Jamalul Kiram, the 74-year-old Sultan of Sulu, invaded on Feb. 12. The 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.
More than 50 militants have been killed since the start of the unrest, Hamza said on television today. Eight police officers died in earlier fighting.
Najib yesterday raised salaries of civil servants, including police and the armed forces, costing the government 1.5 billion ringgit ($483 million).
“I hope with all this, all of you will choose wisely and make the right decision in the coming general election,” Najib said when announcing the initiative yesterday in Putrajaya, the country’s administrative center near Kuala Lumpur.
The government has also been distributing a second round of 500-ringgit cash handouts to low-income households as the election draws near.
“It’s no longer a matter of good timing or not, he just doesn’t have a choice any more,” Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive officer of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said by phone today. “Everyone is saying that he will dissolve the parliament. The likelihood is by the end of this month, so the element of surprise is completely gone by now.”
Najib’s approval rating fell to 61 percent in early February in a survey conducted before fighting began in Sabah, from 63 percent at the end of December, the Merdeka Center said Feb. 26.
“My sense is that it will be by the end of March,” said Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur and an election strategist for the opposition Democratic Action Party. “March 25 seems like a possible date.”