Malaysia: Political stakes rise as standoff continues in Sabah

Updated On: Mar 04, 2013

A standoff between an estimated 100-300 members of a clan that is occupying a Malaysian village and Malaysian police has intensified after further clashes have led to the deaths of police officers and clan members in Sabah state.

Malaysia has now sent hundreds of soldiers and conducted aerial bombardment on farming villages Tanduo and Semporna on the East coast of Sabah in an attempt to crack down on the incursion. Filipino clan members of a former Sulu Sultanate claim their right to Sabah, which was once controlled by the Sulu.

The Sulu sultanate's power faded about a century ago but it has continued to receive nominal payments from Malaysia Sabah under a lease deal that was inherited from European colonial powers.

On Saturday, Philippine President Benigno Aquino called on the clan members to surrender "unconditionally." On its part, Malaysia has threatened to take "drastic action" unless the group surrender.

Malaysian patience appeared to be waning as 12 members of the clan and two Malaysian police officers were killed on Friday. Further deaths of police officers and clan members prompted an increase in troop numbers on Monday, amid fears that the Filipino fighters had gained further ground along the coast. Malaysian air and ground forces launched an assault on the militants on Tuesday, in an attempt to end the standoff.

Tensions grow

The standoff  has shocked Malaysians and been a source of embarrassment to Premier Najib Razak, who must call elections by June. Questions have been raised over how the clan members were able to land on the State and takeover a village, fueling perceptions of lawlessness and poor border security in Sabah.

If the crisis continues, political implications of the stand off could be damaging for both governments. At the moment Malaysia is helping to broker the peace deal between Malacanang and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in the South of the Philippines.

However, President Aquino may be forced to appease clan sympathisers amongst the general population, who support Filipino claims to Sabah. Some have already attacked the president for his less “nationalistic” view of the Sabah claim.

Despite this, the Philippines has suggested that the fate of the clan members now lies in the hands of the security forces, appearing to accept that the stand-off may not be ended by negotiation. Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda  said the government has urged the Sultanate to order its men home in order to discuss its proprietary claims, but that he had rejected the order.

The clashes are proving a quagmire for both the Malaysian and Philippine governments, who are now having to deal with a insurgency that has dragged on much longer than anticipated. As of Friday, the remaining Sulu fighters had yet to indicate they want to surrender, with reports coming from the members that they would fight to the death.

In the meantime, the UN has expressed its concern about the the plight of civilians and refugees affected by the violence.

In a statement, UN chief Ban Ki Moon said he “encourages dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation and urged all parties to facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards."

Report: Malaysia beefs up security as Borneo toll rises  (CNA, 4 March 2013)

Report: Philippines President Aquino urges Sabah clan to surrender (BBC News, 2 March 2013)

Commentary: A situation so delicate for Aquino (The Star, 4 March 2013)

Report: Malaysia launches operation to end militant stand-off (CNA, 5 March 2013)