Malaysian security forces remain in a stand-off with some 100 men they say are armed insurgents from a rebel faction in the southern Philippine region of Mindanao, who are accused of having taken over a village in a remote part of Sabah state on Borneo Feb. 14. But the Philippine government maintains the men are unarmed Filipino peasant migrants who had been promised land in the area. The Malaysian inhabitants of the village, named as Kampung Tanduao, have reportedly been forced to flee. Malaysian police forces say the invaders procialmed themselves the "royal army" of the Sultanate of Sulu, which has an historic claim to the area. By some accounts, the men have raised the Philippine flag in the village, which is now surrounded by Malaysian troops. The Philippine military has meanwhile deployed naval vessels and an aircraft to the coast of Malaysian Borneo.
The contemporary Malaysian state of Sabah had been a part of the Sulu Sultanate, together with several southern Philippine islands, from the 1400s until the territory was leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878. Britain transferred Sabah to Malaysia in 1963, but the country still pays a token rent to the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate each year. The sultanate was a Spanish vassal state after 1851, and the remainder was incorporated into the Philippines upon independence, with Manila recognizing its local kingship over the Tausug people. (AFP, BBC News, SCMP, Feb. 15; Reuters, Feb. 14; Royal House of Sulu history page)
Al-Qaeda-linked narco-terrorists in Borneo stand-off?
We have no idea how plausible this is, but AFP quotes an unnamed Philippine official as saying that Manila "did not rule out the possibility" that the men in the Sabah stand-off "could be members of the Abu Sayyaf." The militant group—Mindanao's most extremist faction, which has been plausibly linked to al-Qaeda—is mostly based in Sulu, where they are holding several hostages. The Philippines Sun-Star on Feb. 13 notes a deadly clash in Sulu's mountains between presumed Abu Sayyaf militants and fighters of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which is apparently collaborating with the Manila government against the group.
We've also noted that Sulu seems to be the Philippines' biggest center of cannabis production, and Abu Sayyaf has been repeatedly accused of profiting off the trade—tho we aren't sure how that squares with their ultra-puritan ideology (a contradiction we have also seen with al-Qaeda's North African franchise, AQIM). Mindanao's Zamboanga Today Feb. 11 noted special anti-drug operations by the Philippine Drug Enforcement Agency (PDEA) and local barangay (village) authorities in the Basilan-Sulu-Tawi-Tawi (BaSulTa) area. The local press (Philippines Star, Philippines Inquirer) noted a cannabis eradication operation involving a special Marine Battalion Landing Team last June, with requisite speculation that the crop was controlled by Abu Sayyaf.
Sulu sultanate claims Borneo adventure
Sultan Jamalul Kiram of Sulu has now acknoweldged that the men who have seized a village in Sabah are his followers. Using a different name for the village from that in earlier accounts, he told reporters in Manila: “Why should we leave our own home? In fact they [the Malaysians] are paying rent… Our followers will stay in Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home… [T]here will be no turning back for us.” (AAP, Feb. 18)