Najib Visits Malaysia Battleground as Muslim Clan Under Siege

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak traveled to the eastern state of Sabah today as security forces surrounded an armed Muslim clan from the Philippines that invaded last month to bolster its ownership claim on the area.

Malaysia’s police, army and navy cordoned off two villages in Sabah to prevent more than 200 loyalists of self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram from getting food and weapons, according to Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib. Najib will visit an operations center later today, Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein told reporters.

“If there’s a way out, it’s only by sea,” Taib said, according to a transcript of his remarks. “However, I admit that there are challenges as we’re dealing with human beings, so they may have some tricks up their sleeves.”

The attempt by the clan to regain territory on Borneo Island that the sultanate lost more than a century ago erupted weeks before elections in both Malaysia and the Philippines. It also comes as Philippine President Benigno Aquino aims to conclude a peace deal with a Muslim separatist group that Najib helped to broker.

Security forces “created a tight cordon” around Tanduo and Tanjung Batu villages in Sabah, Taib said. Fighter jets were seen flying over the area this morning, Malaysia’s Star newspaper reported, without citing anyone.

Fighting since March 1 has killed about 40 people, including eight Malaysian police officers. Kiram’s group survived an initial assault two days ago and were receiving help from Filipinos who live in the state, according to Fatima Kiram, Jamalul’s wife.

‘Fighting Goliath’

“We know we are fighting Goliath,” she said in an interview at the couple’s home in Manila today. “The truth has been revealed to the whole world for the sake of our dignity and pride, and I see that as a victory for us.”

Aquino, on a visit to nearby Mindanao island, said that 10 Philippine Navy and Coast Guard ships formed a blockade to prevent reinforcements from arriving in Sabah. He vowed to press charges against Jamalul Kiram, who is undergoing dialysis treatment for kidney failure.

“We are not yet at the stage when we will file by tomorrow or the next day,” Aquino told reporters in Davao City. “It’s still in the investigation stage.”

Aquino’s administration 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. He said later that it was “impossible” for the insurgents to defeat Malaysia’s military.

Sabah Filipinos

United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon urged a peaceful resolution to the conflict in a statement issued from New York. He called on all sides to allow delivery of humanitarian assistance and respect human rights.

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.

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, was little changed as of 12:44 p.m. in Kuala Lumpur.

Elections Coming

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.