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Terrorism & Security

Malaysia standoff in Borneo spurs concern about broader repercussions

A rising death toll, three weeks after Filipino militants stormed Malaysia’s eastern state of Sabah on Borneo Island, could spur a broader confrontation between Malaysia and the Philippines.

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The stakes are high as the scenario not only raises tensions between Filipinos and those who reside in Sabah, but also puts a spotlight on domestic issues. According to the Wall Street Journal:

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Whitney Eulich is the Monitor's Latin America editor, overseeing regional coverage for CSMonitor.com and the weekly magazine. She also curates the Latin America Monitor Blog.

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The conflict is an awkward one for both the Malaysian and Philippine governments. Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak is expected a call national elections in the coming months, and can't afford to look weak on security issues. Officials in the Philippines, meanwhile, worry that the standoff is designed to sabotage a fragile peace process between the government and main Muslim rebel group in the south of the country, which analysts say could hamper the growth of Islamist militant networks across the whole of Southeast Asia.

The Malaysian state news agency Bernama quoted the Prime Minister Najib Razak as saying, “The people of Sabah should not be fearful of their safety,”  according to The New York Times. Mr. Razak said the violence had been contained to three areas in Sabah and that Malaysian forces were on the ground working to end the standoff.

“Let’s give them the opportunity and time to carry out their operations and overpower the group and rescue those in need,” Razak said. He warned Saturday that the men will either surrender “or face consequences if they refuse,” reports the Wall Street Journal. The rebels have already ignored two deadlines to leave.

A man named Jamalul Kiram III led the invaders to Sabah, however, and according to the Times, there are several people who claim to be the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu, and some members of the clan disagree with the actions currently being undertaken by Mr. Kiram and his followers fighting there.

His daughter told a Malaysian radio station this weekend that Kiram is not likely to back down from his claims to the land. "The decision remains the same. They will not return here because honor is worth more than life," Jacel Kiram, one of Kiram's daughters, told Manila-based radio station DZBB, according to the Wall Street Journal. "What is life without honor?"

In fact, Free Malaysia Today reports that instead of heeding calls to retreat, Kiram “wants the United Nations, the United States and the United Kingdom to intervene in his claim over Sabah.”

The Sulu militants’ continued refusal to depart from Sabah caused Filipino President Benigno Aquino III to announce that the group must “surrender without condition.”

This has raised ire among Muslim groups in the Philippines, who feel their own peace accords with the government have been affected by the Sulu standoff, reports Time.

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