Nickee Butlangan/AP
Filipino residents of the Malaysian state of Sabah arrive with their belongings at the port of Jolo, the capital of Sulu province in southern Philippines early Monday, March 4, 2013 after fleeing Lahad Datu district of Sabah.

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 death toll has risen to at least 31 people over the weekend following a standoff between Malaysian authorities and Filipino militants, who stormed the island of Borneo three weeks ago and refused to leave.

Observers fear the incident could have broader domestic repercussions in Malaysia and the Philippines

Yesterday Malaysian police said unidentified armed men attacked and killed at least six security officials in Malaysia's eastern state of Sabah, reports The Wall Street Journal. These deaths came just days after 14 people – two Malaysian and 12 Filipino – were killed in clashes between Malaysian security forces and the militants who claim to represent the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu.

In early February, more than 100 followers of the Sultan of Sulu reignited a centuries-old land dispute by traveling to Sabah and refusing to abandon claims to the territory, reports The Christian Science Monitor.

The sultanate, or the territory the sultan governed, existed from the late 15th century until the late 19th century, governing Muslims spanning parts of Sulu and northern Borneo. 

Though the sultanate is not recognized anymore internationally as a governing entity, Malaysia still pays a token "rental fee" to the heirs of the last sultan.

This isn’t the first incursion of the resource-rich state of Sabah, reports Agence France-Presse. Past raids were largely orchestrated by Filipino Islamic militant groups traveling from southern Philippines.

Both the Malaysian and Filipino navies have been deployed in the area, and The New York Times reports that Malaysian security forces are doubling their presence in Sabah. The militants say reinforcements are arriving from the Philippines to support their claim to the land. The Filipino president sent social workers, medics, and Filipino-Muslims to try to bring about the Sulu militant group’s withdrawal.

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:

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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