KOTA KINABALU: A year after a botched armed attempt to reassert their “ownership of Sabah”, a “royal” family in the Philippines now wants to pursue its claim through a “peaceful resolution”.
If this “more peaceful option” does not pan out, the Kiram family of the defunct Sulu sultanate has indicated it will entertain “more forceful options”. Abraham Idjirani’s choice of the words “more forceful options” should not be dismissed lightly.
Idjirani is the spokesman of Esmail Kiram II, who took over the Sulu Sultan title last October following the death of his elder brother Jamalul Kiram III, who had ordered the armed intrusion into Sabah last year.
“It is the policy of Sultan Esmail to settle this matter through peaceful dialogue,” the spokesman told The Star in a telephone interview from Manila.
Idjirani said a legal panel had been set up for the Sulu sultanate to reassert its ownership of “North Borneo territories” at the International Court of Justice and at the British courts.
The Sulu sultanate also wants the United Nations involved in order to find a peaceful resolution and “to avoid further bloodshed”.
Idjirani, who is married to a Kiram, stressed that the family wants to “reclaim” Sabah in a peaceful way.
However, if that is not possible, they would have no choice but to “send in the troops”.
The Kiram clan, which is one of more than a dozen families in the Philippines and Sabah claiming to be descendants of the defunct Sulu sultanate, insists that a swathe of eastern Sabah belonged to the sultanate for centuries and was only leased initially to the British and later to Malaysia.
The family also argue that North Borneo’s teaming up with Sarawak, Singapore and Malaya to form the Malaysian Federation in 1963 did not end the sultanate’s ownership of its North Borneo territory, now known as Sabah.
“Malaysia is merely administering the sultanate’s territory in Sabah,” said Idjirani.
In pursuing their claim, the late Jamalul III ordered his younger brother Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram to assert the sultanate’s ownership of its “North Borneo territories” by leading a Sulu army of about 200 people to occupy Tanduo.
“Tanduo was not an intrusion. It was a homecoming. How can you be intruding into a territory that is owned by you?” Idjirani said.
However, that foray resulted in 73 members of the self-proclaimed Royal Sulu Army and 10 members of the Malaysian security forces being killed in Lahad Datu and in related attacks in Kampung Simunul in Semporna.
Twenty-nine insurgents are currently being tried for various charges, including waging war against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and being members, sheltering or recruiting individuals to become members of a terrorist group.
To date, however, nothing is known of Azzimudie’s fate.
Idjirani says his brother-in-law is still in Sabah, a claim often dismissed by Malaysian security officials.
“It would be pointless for him to return to the Philippines for now,” Idjirani said, adding that the Kiram family kept in touch with Azzimudie at irregular intervals to ensure Malaysian authorities don’t pinpoint his whereabouts.
Some Malaysian security officials are certain that Azzimudie, a former Kudat assistant district officer in the 1970s, had fled back to the Philippines soon after the offensive against the gunmen began and is lying low there.
They believe the Kiram clan has been insisting that the “Raja Muda” was still in Sabah because Azzimudie had made many promises (before the intrusion) to Sulu gunmen, who were now dead or facing criminal charges in Malaysia.
Sabah Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib has said Azzimudie’s family keeps claiming he is in Sabah to prevent him from being killed in the Philippines.
Malaysian security forces believe that Azzimudie fled from Tanduo soon after the full-scale offensive against the gunmen began on March 5 last year.
One suspicion is that he made his way to the nearby Kampung Tanjung Batu and Tanjung Labian before sneaking out to Sungai Bilis and hitching a ride with the Pelahu or sea gypsies to the southern Philippine island of Simunul.
Since then Azzimudie is said to have been spotted in Bongao in Tawi Tawi and later in Zamboanga City and is now believed to be lying low in Davao city.
However, the fate of his top commander (General Musa) who fled with Azzimudie is still not known, though Malaysian security forces did recover a uniform bearing his name.
Malaysian security officials believe he was killed, although some of his relatives in the Philippines claim Musa was seriously injured but managed to return to his home country.
A member of the Kiram clan, Datu Amir Bahar – the second son of Sultan Esmail – was, however, captured in the security offensive and was among the individuals charged for various offences linked to the intrusion.
“Sultan Esmail is leaving the fate of his son to the will of God,” said Idjirani.
In the midst of all the bravado, it remains to be seen whether the Kiram family will get anywhere with its claims.
Keeping alert for intruders in troubled waters