Aquino Sends Envoy to Malaysia as Sabah Death Toll Reaches 31

Philippine President Benigno Aquino sent his top diplomat to Kuala Lumpur in a bid to avert further bloodshed as Malaysian authorities seek to end a standoff with a Muslim clan that invaded Sabah state last month.

Philippines Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario was scheduled to meet with his Malaysian counterpart late yesterday to “calm the situation,” Aquino said. At least 31 people have died in clashes between Malaysian police and followers of Jamalul Kiram, a Filipino who asserts he’s the sultan of Sulu and is pressing a centuries-old territorial claim to Sabah.

“To the people who are behind this, even now, I tell you: you will not succeed,” Aquino said yesterday. “All those who have wronged our country will be held accountable.”

The rising death toll increases pressure on Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to end the standoff, which has revived a decades-old sovereignty dispute. The opposition Pakatan Rakyat alliance accused him of “weak leadership” as it seeks to end his ruling Barisan Nasional coalition’s 55-year grip on power in an election that must be called by April 28.

“Malaysia is left with only the military option,” James Chin, a professor of political science at the Malaysian campus of Australia’s Monash University, said by phone. “There’s no choice. If he doesn’t handle it well there will be an impact on Barisan National.”

Najib’s government called for unity and asked opposition politicians to avoid inflaming the situation.

“We are disappointed that the opposition has chosen this moment to try and score cheap, pre-election political points,” Najib’s office said in a statement yesterday.

Arroyo Administration

Aquino implicated allies of former Philippine President Gloria Arroyo in the incident, saying that “certain members of the past administration” assisted Jamalul Kiram, who ran for a Senate seat in 2007 elections under Arroyo’s party. Aquino called on the group to surrender and said they will face charges.

“There are those who conspired to bring us to this situation -- a situation that has no immediate solutions,” Aquino said. “Some of their identities are clear to us, while others continue to skulk in the shadows. The family of Sultan Jamalul Kiram could not possibly have settled on this course of action alone.”

Elena Horn, a spokeswoman for former president Arroyo, didn’t return a phone call and a mobile phone message seeking comment.

‘Outpour of Anger’

Eight Malaysian police officers and 23 Kiram loyalists have been killed in shootouts since March 1. Some of the 800,000 Filipinos living in Sabah seized the police headquarters in Semporna on March 2 and took four local officials hostage in retaliation for the deaths of a Muslim religious leader and his four sons, according to Fatima Kiram, Jamalul Kiram’s wife.

“The Filipinos there banded together and retaliated,” she said, adding that the group was not part of Kiram’s militia that came from the Philippines. “They took over the police headquarters and seized their arms because there has been an outpour of anger.”

More Filipinos are heading to the Malaysian side of Borneo island from the southern provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan and the southern part of Palawan, Kiram said.

The situation is “under control” following the latest violence, Ramli Mohamed Yoosuf, Malaysia’s assistant commissioner of police, said yesterday in an interview.

The Sulu sultanate 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.

International Court

The Philippines is considering taking its claim to Sabah to the International Court of Justice, Edwin Lacierda, a spokesman for Aquino, told ABS-CBN News in a television interview yesterday.

“We are seriously studying the claim of the Kirams to Sabah,” Lacierda said. The territorial claim is enshrined in the 1987 constitution and “it’s still there,” he said.

The Philippines and Malaysia had been cooperating to resolve the standoff peacefully, Aquino said last week. Najib helped Aquino reach a peace deal with Muslim separatists in the southern Philippines last year.

Sabah had a poverty rate of 19.7 percent in 2009, the highest among Malaysia’s 13 states, according to government statistics. It has a population of 3.21 million people.

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