On February 12th, approximately 150 members of the so-called ‘Royal Army of Sulu’ landed in Malaysia, claiming that they have come to reclaim the Sultan’s lost territory. Tensions escalated on Friday as up to twelve members of the invaders and two Malaysian police officers were killed. Now the so-called “Invaders” have spread throughout the rest of Malaysia and have begun launching attacks. It is unknown whether the invaders were able to slip away from the main encampment where the Malaysian police force had them surrounded or whether these are additional reinforcement.
Malaysia was hoping to use peaceful negotiations to get the armed militia to return to their native land – the Philippines. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib, has now that stated force will be used if the armed group does not surrender quickly. According to Malaysia authorities, the first gun battle occurred when the rebels opened fired on Malaysian police as they were tightening the security cordon around the tiny Tanduo village the invaders are occupying. According to the Malaysian police, the invaders fired the first shots and the police had no intention of resorting to violence except for self defense. In the ensuing gun fight two police officers and 12 rebels were killed.
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Now the conflict has spread to at least three other villages in Borneo. The link between these new fighters and the fighters encircled in Tanduo is not yet clear, but they seemed to be linked. Six Malaysian police officers died when the invaders ambushed them, it was not long before they were forced to retreat after suffering three casualties.
The rebels were supposed to leave before a deadline set for February 24th but have refused to do. Now, both the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia have demanded an immediate and unconditional surrender. Prime Minister Najib has given both the police and the army permission to use any means necessary to end the conflict and has stated that unless the rebels quickly and unconditionally surrender, they risk further casualties.
The conflict stems over ownership of the Malaysian territory of Sabah. According to representatives of the Sultan of Sulu, the territory belongs to the Sultan and thus the Philippines. The Sultan of Sulu acquired the territory in 1450 as a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, and then proceeding to rule over the territory until 1878, when the British North Borneo Company signed an indefinite lease with the Sultan. In exchange for 5,000 Malaysian dollars per year, the company would be granted sovereignty over the territory.
In 1963, the territory became a part of newly independent Malaysia. The Philippines government originally protested this move, claiming that the territory should be returned to the Philippines, however these protests landed on deaf ears. The Malaysian government has continued to pay the token sum to the Sultanate.
For the most part, royal families and titles have been abolished in the Philippines, though there are still some Datus (a title akin to prince) and their status is protected under the Filipino constitution. Given that most royal families have been abolished in the Philippines, it is questionable that the Sultan of Sulu would even have any claims to the territory if it were under Filipino rule. In fact, the Sultan of Sulu has already lost claim to Filipino islands in the southern portion of the country.
The conflict comes at a bad time for Prime Minister Najib, who is gearing up for a tough general election in the next few weeks. Still the invaders have little sympathy in either Malaysia or the Philippines, and there is little possibility of obtaining fresh supplies or reinforcement. Unless the rebels surrender quickly, the death toll seems likely to rise.