Skip to main content

Filipino group on Borneo claims to represent sultanate, Malaysia says

By Jethro Mullen, CNN
February 15, 2013 -- Updated 1056 GMT (1856 HKT)
Head of Sulu and North Borneo, Sultan Esmail Kiram, gestures during a press conference in Manila, 28 February 2004.
Head of Sulu and North Borneo, Sultan Esmail Kiram, gestures during a press conference in Manila, 28 February 2004.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Philippine officials say they are coordinating with Malaysia on the situation
  • Malaysian security forces are in talks with the men from the South Philippines
  • The men arrived in a remote district of the Malaysian state of Sabah on Tuesday
  • They claim to represent a sultanate that once ruled over Sabah, a Malaysian official says

(CNN) -- An unusual standoff is unfolding on the island of Borneo where about 100 men from the southern Philippines have come ashore demanding to be recognized as representatives of a sultanate that has historical claims on the area, Malaysian authorities said.

Malaysian police and armed forces are negotiating with the men, who arrived by boat Tuesday in the remote, eastern district of Lahad Datu, in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo.

The men claim to be the "Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu" and say they don't want their people to be sent away from the area, Tan Sri Ismail Omar, the Inspector General of the Royal Malaysian Police, said Thursday, according to the country's national news agency Bernama.

Malaysian security forces have surrounded the village where the men are, and discussions with the group are "proceeding well," Ismail said. "We have told them to leave Sabah peacefully, as we do not want any situation which can threaten the security of the people," he added.

Founded in the 1400s, the Sultanate of Sulu once encompassed numerous islands in the southern Philippines. At one point, it also comprised parts of Borneo, including Sabah.

The historical connection still fuels tensions between Malaysia and the Philippines, with Manila retaining a "dormant claim" to Sabah through the Sultanate of Sulu, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Sulu is now part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the southern Philippines, an area whose islands come within a few dozen kilometers of Sabah and where Islamic militants groups such as Abu Sayyaf operate.

A previous hostage drama

In 2000, gunmen associated with Abu Sayyaf kidnapped more than 20 people, including Malaysians and Europeans, from a resort on the Sabah island of Sipadan, about 100 kilometers south of Lahad Datu, and held them for ransom in the southern Philippines.

The group of Filipino men cornered in Lahad Datu say they don't want to be linked with any militant group in the Philippines, Ismail said, according to Bernama. But police don't rule out that the men are armed, he said.

"So far the situation is not tense and they appear to be behaving well," Ismail was quoted as saying. "We believe the group has friends in the village but do not have homes there."

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said it was important that the matter "be resolved without any bloodshed," Bernama reported.

Philippine government and military officials are coordinating with their Malaysian counterparts on the matter, the official Philippines News Agency (PNA) reported Friday.

Abigail Valte, a spokeswoman for Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, said the government is trying to "ascertain the facts" about the situation, according to PNA.

She said Manila was ready to provide assistance to those involved in the standoff after Philippine diplomats in Malaysia had assessed the situation.

The Philippine foreign ministry and the Malaysian prime minister's office didn't immediately respond to requests for comment from CNN on Friday. Philippine military officials declined to comment on the matter.

According to PNA, Manila still claims much of the eastern part of Sabah, which was leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878 by the Sultanate of Sulu. In 1963, Britain transferred Sabah to Malaysia, a move that the sultanate claimed was a breach of the 1878 deal.

CNN's Kathy Quiano contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 0023 GMT (0823 HKT)
Wilson Raj Perumal tells CNN how he rigged World Cup games: "I was giving orders to the coach."
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0823 GMT (1623 HKT)
He should be toddling around a playground. Instead, his tiny hands grip an AK-47.
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1031 GMT (1831 HKT)
CNN's Will Ripley travels to North Korea, visiting an international wrestling festival and a slide-filled water park, said to be a pet project of secretive young leader Kim Jong Un.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0920 GMT (1720 HKT)
Our whole solar system appears to be inside a searing gas bubble, scientists say.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1230 GMT (2030 HKT)
In a raid on a luxury apartment complex in France, agents caught up with Ibrahim Boudina, a French-Algerian man they accuse of bringing back Syrian-schooled terror to Europe.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 0002 GMT (0802 HKT)
One journalist murdered, another still being held by ISIS -- a ransom negotiator talks to CNN about the delicate business of trying to get a hostage home alive.
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1402 GMT (2202 HKT)
The accidental killing of a gun instructor raises an "absurd question," writes Mel Robbins.
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1228 GMT (2028 HKT)
Was a police officer justified in shooting and killing Michael Brown?
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1654 GMT (0054 HKT)
Don't like the country you live in? Meet the people who created their own "micronations."
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 0946 GMT (1746 HKT)
We asked you what you would like to know about Ebola. Experts answer some of your most common questions and concerns.
CNN joins the fight to end modern-day slavery by shining a spotlight on its horrors and highlighting success stories.
Browse through images from CNN teams around the world that you don't always see on news reports.
ADVERTISEMENT