MANILA: Philippine President Benigno Aquino warned a sultan yesterday that he would face the “full force of the law” unless he withdrew his gunmen from Malaysia, but the elderly ruler remained defiant.
Followers of the Sultan of Sulu have been facing off with Malaysian forces for two weeks, after they sailed from their remote southern Philippine island homes to stake a territorial claim.
With the incident causing embarrassment to Manila, Aquino made a nationally televised address to pressure the sultan into bringing his gunmen back from Malaysia’s Sabah state.
“If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way,” Aquino said.
“This is a situation that cannot persist. If you are the leader of your people, you should be one with us in ordering your followers to return home peacefully.”
Aquino also warned the sultan that he may have broken laws, including one banning citizens from inciting war that carries a maximum prison term of 12 years.
But Jamalul Kiram III, 74, called a press conference from his home in a poor Muslim enclave of Manila to insist the standoff would continue unless his demands were met.
“We have not committed (a) crime,” Kiram said, adding his followers cornered in a fishing village in Sabah on Borneo island would not initiate any violence with the Malaysian forces.
“But we are prepared to defend our lives and aspirations.”
Kiram says he is the head of the Islamic Sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the stand-off, and southern Philippine islands.
The sultanate leased northern Borneo to Europeans in the 1870s. While its authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, the sultanate continued to receive lease payments for Sabah.
Kiram and his family, as heirs to the sultanate, receive nominal annual compensation from Malaysia — the equivalent of about $1,700 — and they want more.
Kiram said the gunmen would lay down arms if the Philippines and Malaysia agreed to negotiate terms for joint development of Sabah. He also said his followers wanted to remain in Sabah even if a financial deal was struck. “(They want to) peacefully settle in Sabah, which is our homeland,” he said.
Aquino said the sultan had 180 followers in Sabah, up to 30 of whom were armed. But Kiram said he had 235 members of the “Royal Armed Forces of Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo” there.
Malaysia has sought to ensure tensions do not escalate at the site, surrounding the gunmen but keeping their distance.
Aquino cautioned the sultan that he could not expect to test the Malaysian government’s patience indefinitely without repercussions.
“The avenue of peaceful and open dialogue is still available to us... We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point.”