Philippines retains a dormant claim to Malaysia's Sabah State in northern Borneo. Sabah, was once ruled by the Sultan of Sulu, who was based on the Philippine island of Mindanao. Malaysia and the Philippines nearly went to war over Sabah in the 1960s. Relations with the Philippines also have been strained over allegations that members of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a Filipino insurgent group, have commandeered parts of Borneo as a haven. A Malaysian government official in Sabah were accused of supplying weapons to Muslim separatists in Mindanao.

Groups of Filipino militants have occasionally crossed into Sabah to stage kidnappings, including one that involved island resort vacationers in 2000. Malaysia has repeatedly intensified its patrols but the long and porous sea border with the Philippines remains difficult to guard.

Dispute Between Malaysia and the Philippines Over Sabah

Some Filipinos in the Sulu area of the southern Philippines insist that Sabah, a state rich with timber and oil, had belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back. Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “ Sabah was a gift from the Sultan of Brunei for the Sulu Sultanate’s help in quelling a rebellion in 1685. The dispute has its origin in the signing of an agreement in 1878 between the Sulu Sultanate and a British company which “leased” the territory for a sum to be paid in perpetuity. In 1885, Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the whole of Borneo, in exchange for British recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the entire Sulu archipelago. That placed Sabah under the British sphere of influence. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 =]

“Over the years, the British colonial government succeeded the company, with Sabah becoming a Crown Colony in 1946 and later joining Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. The Philippine government came into the picture in September 1962 when an heir of the sultanate, Esmail Kiram, surrendered authority and sovereignty over Sabah to President Diosdado Macapagal’s government. However, Manila has been hesitant in its approach to Sabah. At one stage, it secretly backed Moro militants to reclaim the territory. But at other times, it left the issue dormant in favour of better ties with Malaysia. =

“At the center of the dispute is the 1878 agreement between the sultanate and the British company. Was Sabah leased or ceded to the British? Over the past five decades, the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate have been making unilateral claims to Sabah, including filing a petition at the United Nations for the return of the territory, arguing that the territory was only rented out.” =

Armed Men from the Philippines Invade Sabah in 2013

In February 2013, about 200 armed men from the Philippines snuck into Sabah by boat and entered the village of Ladah Datu are refused to leave. The militants armed with rifles and grenade launchers, had refused to leave, staking a long-dormant claim to the entire state of Sabah, which they insisted was their ancestral birthright. Lahad Datu is a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “The men, identifying themselves as the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, declared to the Malaysian security forces who surrounded them in Lahad Datu that they were there to reclaim the ancestral land of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of several claimants to the defunct Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.They defied calls by the Philippine President Benigno Aquino to return home and rejected offers by the Malaysian authorities to withdraw from the village, saying that they were prepared to fight if they were forcefully evicted from Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo. After three tense weeks, the stand-off worsened to a violent confrontation between the intruders and security forces, that killed two Malaysian policemen and 12 of the armed men. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013]

Jeremy Grant and Roel Landing wrote in the Financial Times, “For three weeks Malaysian forces have been facing off against 180 followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, from a remote island in the south-west Philippines. More than 20 people have been reported killed in clashes over the past few days, in the worst violence on Malaysian territory for decades. Both governments were caught off guard when armed insurgents landed at a village in Sabah, north-east Borneo. The group are followers of Jamalul Kiram III, who says that his claimed title of Sultan of Sulu gives his people an ancestral right to the region. The violence in Sabah spread to Semporna, a stopover used by foreign diving enthusiasts off the southeast coast of Sabah, as well as to the village of Kunak, to the north of Semporna. [Source: Jeremy Grant, Roel Landing, Financial Times, March 4, 2013]

The armed group was led by Azzimudie Kiram, the younger brother of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the southern Philippine province of Sulu. Azzimudie told Philippine Radio dzMM that his men will not return to the Philippines as it would be an "embarrassment" for them and the Sulu sultanate. "We cannot go back to the Philippines because that will be a great embarrassment on our part. We have already stated our intention in coming here.” He said he and his 275 followers were bent on staying in Tanduo village in Lahad Datu while the Philippine government is in talks with the Malaysian government on how to settle the issue.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “The crisis has caught both countries by surprise. Few in Malaysia or the Philippines even know about the Filipino group led by Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the sultan, or the hereditary ruler, of the southern, predominantly Muslim province of Sulu in the Philippines. Sabah and Sulu are separated by a narrow strip of the Sulu Sea that at its shortest span can be traversed by boat in 30 minutes. The two provinces have shared traditional ties and people, who are of the same ethnic stock, frequently travel back and forth. Some 800,000 Filipinos, mostly Muslims, have settled in Sabah over the years to seek work and stability. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

Clashes After Armed Men from the Philippines Invade Sabah in 2013

In early Malaysian soldiers and police attacked the area occupied by Kiram's followers for three weeks in an assault codenamed "Operation Sovereign" involving fighter jets, ground troops and mortar fires. Clashes between the Filipino militants and Malaysian security forces left 19 intruders and eight policemen dead.

Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “What began as an outlandish but peaceful occupation turned violent after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysian policemen last week. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants believed to be linked to the clansmen at a waterfront village in another Sabah district on Saturday. The Malaysians shot and killed 19 clansmen and their suspected allies.[Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

At the height of the fighting in early March 2013, Malaysiakini reported: “The Malaysian security forces ended the 17-day stand-off in Kampung Tanduo, Lahad Datu this afternoon after an exchange of fire with the Sulu sultanate intruders that resulted in 14 deaths, including two Malaysian police commandos. The two Malaysian police commandos killed are Inspector Zulkifli Mamat and Corporal Sabarudin Daud. Three others were injured, one of who is in a critical condition, and they have been hospitalised. They are from VAT69, an elite police commando unit with its roots in counter-insurgency against the communists, and which has since been re-tasked for counter-terrorism and special operations. [Source: Malaysiakini, March 1, 2013]

“Sabah police chief Hamza Taib confirms at a press conference that 12 Sulu gunmen were killed in the operation, besides two Malaysian commandos. Hamza is quoted by The Star Online as saying the shootout began after the five elite General Operations Force (GOF) members tightened their perimeter around Kampung Tanduo and were met with gunfire when they stumbled upon the intruders. In the 9.59am incident, Hamza said, the GOF members were forced to return fire and the skirmish lasted some 30 minutes. Security forces recovered some weapons form the Sulu militants and are now holding their ground around within an area of 10sq-km around the village, he added. The policemen were killed by a mortar shell.

Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez said, "Malaysian authorities, particularly the Malaysian police, are now pursuing the group. Two were killed and one wounded from the Malaysian police after their vehicle(s) were fired upon by the Kiram group. What we have from the Malaysian ambassador is that 10 of Kiram's (Azzimudie's) men surrendered and one owner of the house where Kiram stayed was killed. From the Malaysian authorities, two were killed and one was wounded after the Malaysian police vehicle was fired upon by the Kiram group," read the statement by Hernandez. The report said two of Azzimudie's men escaped and ran towards the sea, according to the Malaysian ambassador. Manila also requested clearance for a Philippine Navy vessel, AT-296 BRP Tagbanua, to proceed to Lahad Datu to enable Philippine medical personnel abroad to attend to the wounded and ferry them and the remaining members of the group back to their respective homes and families.

“According to ANC Dateline Philippine, Sulu sultan Jamalul Kiram's spokesperson Abraham Idjirani said the sultanate is not bent on taking revenge for the death of his men, saying the group wants to settle the matter peacefully. According to ABS-CBN news Azzimudie confirmed that 10 of his men were killed and four others wounded in the shooting incident. "He saw the bodies himself," Idjirani told a press conference in Manila. "The fatalities included one woman." Idjirani appealed to the Malaysian government to stop the attack, saying Azzimudie's men were armed only with ' bolos ' (machetes) and knives and only a few had guns. He claimed that Malaysian police commandos were using snipers to get at Azzimudie's men. Idjirani said, "This morning is a moment in history, that the Malaysian security forces fired the first shot," he was quoted as saying. On the other hand, he noted that Azzimudie could not ascertain if the first shot had been aimed at his people.

Malaysia Launches Air Strikes While the Sultan's Filipino Army “Sneaks to Safety"

Associated Press reported: “Malaysia has launched air strikes and mortar attacks against nearly 200 Filipinos occupying a Borneo seaside village in a dramatic escalation of a bizarre three-week siege that has turned into a security nightmare for both Malaysia and the Philippines. The assault follows firefights in Malaysia's eastern Sabah state that killed eight police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2013]

The Malaysian national police chief, Ismail Omar, said Malaysian security forces suffered no casualties in Tuesday's offensive but he did not give details about the Filipinos. Air strikes "achieved their objectives in accordance to the targets" while ground forces who encountered resistance from gunmen firing at them were carrying out "mopping up" operations by searching houses in the village, Ismail said, without elaborating on how many had been detained.

Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the Filipinos, told reporters in Manila that the group would not surrender and that their leader was safe. Idjirani said he spoke by phone with Kiram's brother, who saw fighter jets dropping two bombs on a nearby village that he said the group had already abandoned. "They can hear the sounds of bombs and the exchange of fire," Idjirani said. "The truth is they are nervous. Who will not be nervous when you are against all odds?" He said they will "find a way to sneak to safety". "If this is the last stand that we could take to let the world know about our cause, then let it be," Idjirani said, describing the Malaysian assault as "overkill".

The next day,Sean Yoong of Associated Press wrote: “Malaysian security forces battled a group of Filipino intruders in the rugged terrain of Borneo after they escaped a military assault with fighter jets and mortar fire on their hideout, police said. One Filipino was shot and believed killed. It was not clear if any of the intruders suffered any casualties the assault before they melted away into the jungles, chased by hundreds of Malaysian security forces. [Source: Sean Yoong, Associated Press, March 6, 2013]

Malaysia's national police chief Ismail Omar said security forces exchanged gunfire in a hilly coastal district thick with foliage slightly after dawn. One clansman was shot and possibly killed, he said. "We're in a good position. We ask the public not to panic," Ismail said, adding that authorities would expand their search area beyond the current 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles).

"Bombs were dropped, but they are still safe," Jacel Kiram, the sultan's daughter, said in Manila where she and her father are based. She said her father's brother, who is leading the occupiers in Sabah, informed her by telephone that he and his followers were unhurt. Commenting on Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman's announcement this week that the group was being formally considered terrorists, Kiram said, "Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk."

Background of the Sabah Crisis in 2013

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “Amid the stand-off were questions raised as to who really owns Sabah. It is 1,143 kilometers from Manila, 1,495 kilometers from Singapore, and 1,678 kilometers from Kuala Lumpur. By geographical distance, Sabah is nearer to Manila than Malaysia’s capital of Kuala Lumpur. Does it mean that Sabah belongs to the Philippines which includes the Sulu archipelago? Kept under wraps for the past five decades, the issue of claims to Sabah has now resurfaced with such urgency that it can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet. The stand-off has raised questions as to why it took place at a sensitive time when both Malaysia and the Philippines are about to hold major elections. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 =]

“One theory that is making the rounds is that the ailing Sultan Jamalul Kiram III was trying to reinforce his claims to the sultanate. There have been several claimants to the throne in recent years, none of whom have gained international recognition as the Sulu Sultanate ended after the death of the last sultan in 1936. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is apparently upset that he was not included in the negotiations with the MILF last October, and he planned the “reclaim” of Sabah in order to undermine the peace process. Reports from Manila have claimed he was being secretly backed by Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, as he himself was also left out in the negotiations with the MILF, its breakaway group. Several of Misuari’s MNLF fighters are among the intruders. =

“Another theory is that the heirs of the sultanate staged the armed publicity stunt that turned ugly to demand a renegotiation of the “rent” of RM 5,300 (US$1,700) which they received from Malaysia annually for the Sabah “lease” made during British rule. Over the years, they have written to the Malaysian government requesting a larger sum — as much as $855 million — but to no avail. Malaysia has never officially acknowledged such payment but analysts say that it is a gesture of goodwill by Kuala Lumpur to the descendants of the sultanate and not a recognition of their claim of sovereignty over Sabah.” =

Impact of the Sabah Crisis in 2013

According to Associated Press: “Although tensions between the two communities are not uncommon, it is feared that the Kiram's claims and the violence over the past week will sour relations further and could lead to retaliation against the long-staying Filipino settlers...The crisis could have wide-ranging political ramifications in both countries. Some fear it might undermine peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines. It also could affect public confidence in Malaysia's long-ruling National Front coalition, which was gearing up for general elections at the time of the incursion. The coalition requires strong support from voters in Sabah to fend off an opposition alliance. [Source: Associated Press, March 5, 2013]

Salim Osman wrote in the Straits Times, “Kept under wraps for the past five decades, the issue of claims to Sabah has now resurfaced with such urgency that it can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet. The stand-off has raised questions as to why it took place at a sensitive time when both Malaysia and the Philippines are about to hold major elections. [Source: Salim Osman, Straits Times, March 6, 2013 =]

“The incident has raised concern that it could spark a renewed MNLF militancy with support from Tausug immigrants, who are natives of Sulu, in the Malaysian state in solidarity with their Filipino cousins. In the worst-case scenario, some analysts say the MNLF could revive its rebellion against the authorities in Sabah and the Philippines that would have long-term implications on ties between the two countries and the region. =

“As it is, the stand-off has reignited demands in the Philippines to place the Sabah claims on high profile in its relations with Malaysia. Even President Aquino has ordered his legal team to study the claims, generating wider interest on the issue. Kuala Lumpur too felt the heat from its citizens, who demanded stern action against the intruders so as to uphold Malaysian sovereignty in Sabah and from having to answer criticisms of security lapses that had allowed the armed men to enter the state without firing a shot. =

“Seeking international arbitration through the International Court of Justice in The Hague may be one option. But this would require the consent of both sides to seek such recourse. This does not seem likely as both countries do not appear keen to take that path because of the risks involved should either party lose its claims. Both countries must look for common ground to meet each other halfway and consider available options, including cash settlements, to solve the age-old issue. As long as it is not settled, the issue will resurface because of the maneuverings of the sultanate’s many descendants still struggling to reclaim the land of their ancestors.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.