The Sulu side of the story

Sulu Sultanate claimant Muedzul-Lail Tan Kiram (raised hand)

A self-styled sultan attempts to clear his name and explain the role of his people in Sabah.

LAST week, I received a polite “royal” rebuke from one of the claimants to the Sulu throne.

Via Facebook messenger, “sultan” Muedzul-Lail Tan Kiram wrote, “Dear Philip, I read your write-up and it makes me sad. I was condemned without trial and so were my people.”

The “sultan” was referring to my article, “It’s actually not as bad as it sounds” published last Saturday. Quoting a Malaysian intelligence officer, I wrote that people in Sabah claiming to be panglima (commanders) of Sultan Muedzul-Lail were criminals and not a threat to internal security, unlike the family of the late self-styled Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.

“Can I interview you to write about your side of the story?” I replied to the Tausug man I met in Jolo, Sulu province in 2013.

Here’s the 50-year-old self-styled sultan’s side of his story.

Muedzul-Lail lives in Jolo island, southern Philippines.

He has many rivals – some of whom are conmen – claiming to be the legitimate Sultan of Sulu. One of his main rivals is the family of “Sultan” Jamalul. The family hit the headlines when the “crown prince” Agbimuddin led some 200 followers in the occupation of Kg Tanduo in Lahad Datu, Sabah in 2013.

Muedzul-Lail’s claim to royal legitimacy is that he’s the son of the 34th Sultan of Sulu Mahakuttah Kiram. He was Sultan from 1974 to 1986.

“Now that the two interim Sultans, the brothers Jamalul Kiram III and Sultan Esmail Kiram II are both dead, I hereby assert my birth right as a legitimate Sultan of Sulu archipelago and North Borneo, being the son of the late Sultan Mahakuttah Kiram, the last Sultan recognised by the Philippines Government, and the grandson of the late Sultan Ismael Kiram,” he said.

It was his grandfather who transferred the sovereign authority of North Borneo (renamed to Sabah after it formed Malaysia in Sept 16, 1963) to the Philippines government in 1962.

Muedzul-Lail is related to the late Jamalul, as his uncle is the first cousin of Mahakuttah. He said his uncles – Jamalul and Esmail – stole the sultanship from him after his father died in 1986.

“That time I was a minor. Now it’s time to regain that sultanship from them,” he said.

There were so many fake sultans coming out like mushrooms, according to Muedzul-Lail, because Jamalul and his brothers didn’t respect the law of succession.

“All the fake sultans want to gain United States support to claim back Sabah and Sarawak by all means. But for me as a legit sultan, I don’t want to wage war with Malaysia and Sabahans as I want respect, peace and harmony.”

The three Kiram brothers – Jamalul, Esmail (who succeeded him as Sultan) and Agbimuddin – are dead. Their brother Phugdalun is now the family’s self-styled Sultan of Sulu.

Muedzul-Lail claimed that Phugdalun wants Philippine Vice President Jejomar Binay to win the presidential elections in May because Binay is committed to help him claim Sabah.

“But I can assure Malaysia that I’m the biggest blocking force and opposed to their moves,” he said.

(“Princess” Jacel Kiram, the daughter of the late Jamalul and the niece of Phugdalun, is with Binay and she’s using the Sabah claim as her campaign promise in her bid to be a Senator.)

On Feb 13, Malaysian security forces launched a massive pre-dawn operation in the Telipok Filipino refugee settlement, about 25km from Kota Kinabalu. Armoured personnel carriers entered the settlement, known to harbour criminals, as early as 3am.

The settlement was built in the 1970s for Muslim refugees fleeing southern Philippines during the Moro National Liberation Front war against Manila. Six people, linked to Muedzul-Lail, were among 520 people arrested.

“Who are the six people? What is their link to you?” I messaged the sultan.

“The six people are my panglima and maharaja and their families,” he said. “My only sentiment is the Sabah authority has no respect for my stature.

Let me be clear that all my officials are of good moral character and law-abiding citizens and whenever we find one violating the law, we immediately remove him from our roster.”

According to Muedzul-Lail, his panglima told him that they were arrested due to false intelligence that they were supporters of the family of Jamalul who launched the Tanduo intrusion.

That’s not the perspective of Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

On Tuesday in Parliament, the Home Minister revealed that Sulu terrorists had appointed a commander for each state constituency in Sabah, towards establishing a Sulu sultanate in the state. Bernama reported him as saying that “the information was derived during interrogation of six terror suspects arrested by security forces in Sabah, besides evidence like thumb drives and several documents”.

“What’s your response?” I asked Muedzul-Lail.

“The panglima is just like a district officer. According to our tradition, their duty is to maintain the good relationship of the people within that region, to maintain peace and order of the region and they are not a commander or a terrorist,” he said.

Muedzul-Lail then explained the roles of the titles that he had bestowed to his followers.

The panglima’s duty is to promote good relationship with the fellow Tausugs (the major ethnic group in Sulu province) monitoring the bad elements in Sabah. The maharaja is the deputy to the panglima. And the paduka are the community leaders who will update the panglima on the situation in their respective areas.

“How do you recruit your panglima, maharaja and paduka in Sabah?” I messaged.

“Before the standoff in Lahad Datu I would always come and go to and from Sabah and Sulu. I would choose a poor person but with good moral character who can be of help to fellow Tausug, convincing others not to be involved with lawbreakers.”

After the Tanduo standoff, Muedzul-Lail stopped visiting Sabah as he was instructed by “some top officials in KL to clear my name first because all Kirams were branded as conspirators”.

Muedzul-Lail might be out of Sabah but some of his panglimas are still in the state.

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Opinion , Philip Golingai , columnist


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