THREE events that played out on three consecutive days last week in Kota Kinabalu and 558km across the Sulu Sea on Jolo island might have treacherous consequences for Malaysia’s future.
On Feb 5, the Kota Kinabalu High Court ordered a son of the late Esmail Kiram, a self-styled Sulu Sultan, and 15 Filipinos to enter their defence for various offences related to the 2013 intrusion of Lahad Datu.
The next day, Phugdalun Kiram II was installed in Jolo island as the 35th “sultan” of Sulu and North Borneo.
And on Sunday in Jolo island, the Moro National Liberation Front, in a leadership assembly, declared a son of its founder Nur Misuari as the No. 2 man in the armed organisation.
Days before the High Court made its ruling on whether 27 Filipinos and three Malaysians charged with waging war against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong will have to enter their defence, some Sabahans were in a state of near panic.
Armoured Personnel Carriers and helicopters were seen at and above the Filipino Market in Kota Kinabalu, sparking rumours that the security forces were on the alert for another Sulu invasion. (The market along the city’s waterfront was built in the 1970s for the refugees fleeing southern Philippines during the MNLF war against Manila in the 1970s.)
Apart from the usual WhatsApp rumours, there was a voice message by a “concerned” woman to her family members about a potential reprisal by people linked to the Sulu intruders.
Here’s a sample of a WhatsApp rumour: “Folks ... I heard some disturbing news. The Tanduo intruders will be produced at the High Court tomorrow and they will be sentenced to death.
“Their relatives n supporters have threatened to create ‘ISIS’ havoc ... any truth? Safer to avoid KK town tomorrow?”
My reply to that viral message was: “1) Trial is in Kepayan prison (near Kota Kinabalu). 2) Decision tomorrow is whether to call them to enter their defence. No sentencing. Factually wrong. But people are frightening their loved ones by sharing that fake message.”
But some Sabahans were still not convinced. They were still frightened of their bogeyman (the pendatang or illegal immigrants living or coming to Sabah who were the musuh dalam selimut or sleeping with the enemy).
The Tanduo intrusion and cross border kidnappings on the east coast of Sabah justified their worst nightmare – that their Sulu neighbours posed a security threat.
Intelligence officers told me that the rumour of a retaliation was intensified with chatter that Alinapiah @ Datu Piah, the brother of Sultan Phugdalun, was in Sabah to seek revenge for his nephew Datu Amirbahar Hushin Kiram.
Amirbahar is facing the death penalty for waging war against the King during the Tanduo intrusion to claim Sabah by force.
In February 2013, Phugdalun’s brother (the late) Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram led some 200 gunmen of the Royal Sulu Army in the occupation of Kg Tanduo in Lahad Datu.
Some 60 people, including nine Malaysian security personnel, were killed in the operations against the gunmen, some of whom were MNLF soldiers.
After 240 days of trial, the High Court ordered Amirbahar to enter his defence for several offences.
Amirbahar is the son of the self-styled Sultan Esmail Kiram who died in September last year.
The day after the trial, Phugdalun Kiram was installed as Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo to replace Sultan Esmail Kiram. (North Borneo was the name of Sabah before it formed Malaysia in 1963.)
On that Saturday, photographs emerging from Jolo island showed that Alinapiah had attended the spiritual installation of his brother.
Intelligence assessment reveals that Phugdalun is more “peace-loving” than his brother.
Sultan Phugdalun, who is among the many claiming to be the legitimate Sultan of Sulu, is seeking a peaceful resolution to his family’s claim over Sabah.
If there were any armed attempts, it would come from Alinapiah.
Some intelligence officers do not want to make the same mistake they made assessing the capability of this particular Kiram lineage to wage war against Sabah.
Some thought they did not have the resources to do so until they landed on the shore of Tanduo.
The following day, MNLF founding chairman Misuari met 2,000 of his followers on Jolo island.
His 30-something son Uto Karim Misuari was declared vice chairman of the MNLF central committee, making him the number two man. Intelligence officers are keeping tabs on Uto Karim, trying to determine his position on Sabah.
After Putrajaya handed Misuari to Manila after he fled to Sabah in 2001 following a failed rebellion in southern Philippines, Misuari has had his eye on Sabah.
In the minds of intelligence officers is: will Misuari, who Malaysia supported in the MNLF war against Manila in the 1970s, take revenge on Putrajaya for “betraying” him in 2001?
To get an idea, I contacted Catholic priest Eliseo Mercado who attended the MNLF leadership assembly.
The Institute for Autonomy and Governance director is a personal friend of Misuari.
“Is Misuari still relevant? Is the MNLF still relevant?” I asked the peace advocate via email.
“No peace deal in (southern Philippines) is ever possible and sustainable without Nur Misuari and the MNLF,” he said.
“The MNLF is ever alive and a strong force on the ground notwithstanding the split among some leaders and forces like Mus Sema (Muslimin G. Sema who chairs his own MNLF group). But no doubt Nur Misuari’s MNLF is the strongest, largest and formidable force on the ground.”
The MNLF under Misuari, according to Mercado, will continue – as always – to discuss North Borneo since the MNLF is a stakeholder in the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.
“North Borneo is an integral part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. Nur and the MNLF are stakeholders and ‘heirs’ to the Sultanate,” he said.
“Is Misuari still angry with Malaysia for turning him over to Manila in 2001?” I asked.
“That perfidy is remembered and NOT forgotten ...,” he said.
Sabah and Jolo are interlinked. Sometimes a ripple in the notorious island can be felt in Sabah. At times it is bloody.
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