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Senator kept out but rebels walk into Malaysia

MANILA (AsiaNews) : Malaysia may have seen Australian politician and member of the senate in Canberra, Nick Xenophon, as a security risk and barred him from entering the country at Kuala Lumpur Airport, but seemed to be powerless to stop some 200 armed Muslim militants from Mindanao forcibly occupying an area in the middle of a predominately Christian district in Sabah on February 15, claiming possession as the Sultanate of Sulu.

The group calls itself the Sulu Royal Army and is on the list of armed Muslim groups active in Borneo and in The Philippines.

Its number has been increasing since the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and Filipino authorities reached a peace agreement in recent months. The group is angry that the parcel of land it is occupying, for which the Malaysian government pays rent, has not been mentioned in the agreement.

There are also fears in Mindanao that the dispute could disrupt the on-going peace process between the Philippine government and the MILF. The fly in the ointment is the
Malaysian government, which is brokering the talks.

The secretary general of the Sultanate of Sulu, Abraham Idjirani, said on February 21 that his groups would not bow to pressure from Kuala Lumpur. “The negotiations being undertaken only favour one side,” he stated, “Malaysia.”

He also accused the Malaysian government of breaching human rights by cutting off the food supply to the occupying forces.

Also on February 21, a second pretender staked a claim to being the sultan. Sharif Ibrahim Pulalun disputed the claim of Jamalul Kiram, saying that he would present proof at a press conference in Zamboanga City on February 25.

It is still unclear whether any members of the Abu Sayyaf are among the Filipino militants in the Malaysian village. Sulu, in Mindanao, which is geographically close to Malaysian territorial waters, is the traditional stronghold of the group.

Philippine authorities have deployed a number of naval vessels along its maritime borders, as well an aircraft, and MILF troops are also in the area.

A spokesperson for the Philippine Navy, a lieutenant commander, Gregory Fabic, said they are prepared to patrol the waters in cooperation with Malaysia, which has already blockaded the area to prevent food supplies from getting in.

In 2000, Muslim extremists abducted 21 western tourists in Sipadan (Lahad Datu, Malaysia). The incident ended after months of negotiations between Malaysia, The Philippines and the kidnappers.

Sources told AsiaNews that the Sulu Royal Army is “one of many private armies hired by local Muslim leaders who have close ties to Filipino rebels.”

In recent years, the waters that separate The Philippines from Malaysia have become a major conduit for weapons, drugs and people.

Historically, Malaysian Muslim leaders have been allied to Filipino rebels whose goal is to re-establish the pre-colonial Sultanate of Sulu.

The claim dates back to British rule of Malaya, when the colonial government began paying rent in exchange for establishing plantations. The custom was continued after independence and Philippine defence secretary, Voltaire Gazmin, says it gives strength to the claim made by the sultan.

However, the issues of sovereignty have never been properly settled by either Kuala Lumpur or Manila.