Malaysia Sabah Sulu conflict, Malaysia Philippines conflict, Sulu Sultanate Royal Army in Sabah

It’s been several months since the three-week standoff between the Malaysian security forces and an armed group calling itself the Royal Army of Sulu from the Philippines.

At the height of the conflict in February, sirens were used to warn villagers of the curfew imposed by the Malaysian security forces.

The standoff ended in deadly clashes in March.

And it’s been quiet for some time now in Sabah.

But Patric Lee, a tour operator in Kota Kinabalu, says many Malaysians are still worried that the conflict may erupt again.

 “People are hiding at their homes, and we start to buy to collect our groceries and mostly Sabahans are scared,” Patrick says.

“We don’t actually hate the people who are those militants. They are human beings also, they come here to look for money, ok fine we give them jobs, but in return, they live peacefully with us.”

There’s been a lull in fighting as Malaysian’s have been pre-occupied with the election.

But Patrick says this is by no means the end as he explains what makes Malaysians angry.

“Most Sabahans are blaming the current government because they give identity cards for free. People who came in yesterday, the next day got IC.  Whereas a Dusun guy who gave birth to a boy, took him 15 years to get IC, I’m talking about local Malaysian takes 15 years to get IC. You can do your math there.”

Since the 1970s, many Muslim Filipinos have fled to Sabah to escape the conflict plaguing Mindanao in the southern Philippines.

And Sabah is a perfect getaway – it’s only an hour away by boat and a Muslim state.

Today there are 1.2 million Filipinos in Sabah state – around one-third of the total population.

Historically, several states, including the Sultanate of Sulu, have laid claimed to the territory.

“All Sabahans know this Sulu claims to Sabah. It’s like oral history that became folklore because they don’t teach it in high school,” says Jerome Kugan, a native of Sabah.

“We don’t know a single thing about Sabah history, a lot of Sabahan does not know about how Sabah joined Malaysia.”

The origins of the conflict date back to a contract between the Sultanate and the British North Borneo Company.

Under the contract, the company occupied Sabah, in return for a regular sum of money.

Even today, Malaysia pays nearly 2,000 US dollars a year to the Sultanate.

The British, and subsequently Malaysia, interpreted the contract as a ‘sale’, while the Sulu Sultanate has always maintained it is only a lease.

“What happened was the last recognised Sultan of Sabah died in the early 1900s and he did not leave any heirs to take over his position, so that’s the reason we have a mess now,” says Professor James Chin is a political scientist from Monash University Malaysia.

And many Sulus still believe that Sabah is their rightful home.

“Nobody has revealed the historical process or told them what the whole history is about,” says Dr Aruna Gopinath from the National Defence University. “So they take it for granted it was something given by the Sultan of Sulu and we have developed the whole thing and it’s about time they take back from us.”

Earlier last month, the Sulu Sultanate’s Royal Army mobilized a group of soldiers in Lahad Datu, Sabah.

And according to Malaysian Defence Chief, 35 Sulu militants were recently shot dead while trying to enter Sabah... a claim denied by the official spokesman for the Philippines’ Navy.

Dr Gopinath is certain that the conflict is far from over...

“They will not rest until their dreams are realised. So now they will plan in a bigger fashion how to come and attack us because they have studied what is our strength, our ammunition... what steps we have taken. It’s a study plan.”

Malaysia has no intention of giving up Sabah to the Sulu Sultanate’s Royal Army.

James Chin from Monash University says a solution to the conflict is now up to the Philippines government.

“This issue of Lahad Datu unfortunately can’t be resolved. Because the solution does not lie in Sabah, the solution lies in southern Philippines, the Mindanao region. If you can resolve the Mindanao issue, the Sulu issue will die by itself.”

After 40 years of conflict and 12,000 deaths, the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in Mindanao signed a peace deal in October last year.

And both sides are looking to finalize the details by the end of this month.

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