The Sabah Crisis

Posted: April 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm, Last Updated: May 28, 2013 at 6:32 pm

by Andrew Guth

On February 12, 2013 approximately 200 followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III landed in Lahad Datu in the province of Sabah, Malaysia (Global Times, 2013; GMA News, 2013b). Sulu is a small island that lies between North Borneo, Malaysia and Mindanao, Philippines, and while the island is officially part of the Philippines (lying in the ARMM region) the Sultan also lays claim to Sabah, Malaysia. Historically, in 1658, the Sultan of Brunei ceded Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu for helping in a Brunei civil war (GMA News, 2013b). In 1761, the British East India Trading Company agreed to rent Sabah from the Sulu Sultan, but in 1888 the United Kingdom simply declared itself protectorate of all of North Borneo, including Sabah. In 1939, Sulu Sultan heirs filed and won a legal suit that forced rent payments to continue to be paid for the use of their Sabah land. However, in 1941, the Japanese invaded and took over the territory. In 1963, the United Nations decided to conduct a referendum in order to settle the Sabah dispute between the Philippines and Indonesia, but the citizens of Sabah overwhelming voted to become part of Malaysia (GMA News, 2013b).

The centuries long dispute has been resurrected. Many argue that the region is legitimately theirs including many Filipinos, Malaysians, Indonesians, and Sulus. Those who side with the Malaysian government point to the referendum as the definitive point when Sabah became part of Malaysia. Those that side with the Philippines or Indonesia do not fully agree with the UN referendum. Those who side with the Sulu Sultan claim the land was unjustly taken by foreign powers – including the UK, Japan, and the UN. In fact, Malaysia still pays Sulu heirs compensation, some may even say rent, of approximately $1,700/year/person (Inquirer Global Nation, 2013).

The approximately 200 followers of Sultan Kiram could not have legitimately thought they would land on Sabah, declare it Sulu land, and that Malaysia and the world would simply agree. So, why would a small group of Sulu followers, some armed, decide now to invade Sabah and reclaim historical lands? A previous posting suggested that the newly formed Framework Peace Agreement (FPA) between the Philippine government and MILF would be challenged by other rebel groups in the ARMM region. Since that agreement, fighting between the MNLF and Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) has increased and may have helped spur the migration of the Sultan followers.

The area may be of particular interests to Abu Sayyaf because of its connections with Jemaah Islamiya (JI), Al-Qaeda, and similar organizations (Read, 2012; U.S. Department of State, 2009). Due to the Philippines weak banking system and Hawala networks, the conflict region is desirable as a financial center for these organizations (Read, 2012). Additionally, rebel groups use the region to raise funds for either purely monetary purposes (i.e. criminal activity) or to fund terrorist activity. In addition to kidnappings for ransom, bombings, and extortion, local rebel groups are connected with Chinese criminal organizations that use the conflict as cover to more readily import precursor drugs, establish methamphetamine laboratories, and distribute the drug within and outside of the Philippines (U.S. Department of State, 2009). The groups may also be moving into fake pharmaceuticals – either importing through the region or possibly setting up laboratories for production (ABS-CBN News, 2012; PhilStar, 2012).

Recently, MNLF has been trying to help the Philippine government reign in ASG activities such as kidnaps-for-ransom including the MNLF raiding an ASG camp and successfully rescuing three foreign kidnap victims (GMA News, 2013a). This has led to increased violence in the Sulu region between the two groups and as ASG has turned more violent their attacks now target non-Muslims and Muslim groups alike (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2013). An additional cause may be that the Sulu Sultan was not explicitly invited to the FPA talks. Although all leaders in the area were invited as an open invitation, the talks were performed on the island of Sulu and the Sultan was not explicitly invited or recognized (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 2013). Because of this, the Sultan’s followers may intentionally be trying to disrupt the progress of the peace agreement (Romero, 2013a). These events may have contributed to Sultan Karim followers leaving for Sabah and or not wanting to return to the Philippines.

Whatever the causes, the effects of the actions by Sultan Karim followers appears to be an additional challenge to the FPA. The Sabah crisis has the potential of disrupting the on-going peace talks between the Philippine government and MILF. Accusation and rumors are abounding. Some claim that the MNLF may have or is currently helping the Sultan Kiram followers (Global Times, 2013). The MNLF claims the Philippine government has mishandled the Sabah crisis and therefore may restore their pursuit of an independent Mindanao state instead of the newly established Bangsmoro region laid out in the recent FPA (Global Times, 2013). The MNLF feel the Malaysian government has mistreated many of the 800,000 Filipinos in Malaysia and that the Philippine government should not tacitly stand by (Global Times, 2013). Reports suggest that over 100 Filipinos have been rounded up, forced to perform physical exercises, returned to the ARMM region, thrown in jail, and or shot and killed while in Malaysia during the current crisis (Global Times, 2013). Since March 1, when the armed conflict began, 61 people have been killed (53 members of Sultan Kiram, 8 Malaysian police) (Global Times, 2013).

In addition to tensions increasing between rebel groups and the Philippine government, tensions have increased between Malaysia and the Philippines. Malaysia has not responded to Philippine requests to have Philippine diplomats come see the civilian detainees, Sulu detainees, or allow a ‘mercy’ ship to come to Malaysia and bring back Filipinos who want to return to their home country (Global Times, 2013). However, Malaysia has allowed foreign news crews to come to the area, including ground zero when escorted by Malaysian forces. This relationship is important because Malaysia has been the intermediary between the Philippine government and MILF during their peace talks in establishing the new Bangsamoro region in Mindanao (Global Times, 2013). Indeed, the peace talk meetings between the two groups have been held in Kuala Lumpur (Global Times, 2013). The Malaysian government has also rejected a cease fire offer by Sultan Kiram and his followers and stated that an unconditional surrender is needed (GMA News, 2013c).

The Sabah crisis will not ultimately lead to the demise of the FPA and the new region of Bangsmoro. However, it is the first major attempt to derail the progression of the FPA and future talks and there will assuredly be more disruptive actions to come in the future. It will take true dedication from the Philippine government, MNLF, Malaysian government, and other actors involved to overcome these disturbances.


Global Times. (2013, March 11). News Analysis: Sabah crisis could derail peace process in Southern Philippines – WORLD – Global Crime. Retrieved from

GMA News. (2013a, February 7). AFP denies renewed fighting between ASG, MNLF. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

GMA News. (2013b, February 18). Timeline: The centuries-old tug-of-war over Sabah. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

GMA News. (2013c, March 16). Malaysia lets foreign media cover Sabah ops, says Kiram followers starving. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

Inquirer Global Nation. (2013, March 1). Sulu gunmen open fire on Malaysia forces. Inquirer Global Nation. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

Philippine Daily Inquirer. (2013, February 26). ASG blamed for Sabah row | Inquirer Opinion. Inquirer Opinion. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

Romero, A. (2013a, March 13). Peace talks to continue amid Sabah crisis – MILF | Headlines, News, The Philippine Star | Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

Romero, A. (2013b, March 21). US distances itself from Sabah crisis. Retrieved March 21, 2013, from

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