BORNEO – A standoff between Malaysian security forces and armed intruders from the Philippines now in its third week, the death toll rose to 60 as of late Thursday (March 7th). Meanwhile, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has firmly rejected a truce offer put forward by the militants, who say they are followers of a claimant to the defunct Sultanate of Sulu.
The would-be sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, insists he is the heir to a dynasty that once ruled territory that includes parts of the southern Philippines and Malaysia’s Sabah state. The crisis began on February 12th, when fighters arrived in Borneo and set up a base at the farming village of Tanduo.
Since then, successive confrontations have taken place between Malaysian forces and the rebels. Clashes starting on Wednesday left 32 of the Sultan’s followers dead, bringing the total to 52. Eight Malaysian soldiers were killed in fighting last weekend. On Wednesday, police said the mutilated bodies of six soldiers had been recovered.
On Thursday, news agencies reported that Kiram III called for a unilateral ceasefire and wanted Malaysia to reciprocate. It quoted his spokesman, Abraham Idjiriani, as saying the move was in response to UN calls to prevent further loss of life. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon issued a statement earlier calling for an end to the violence and urging “dialogue among all the parties for a peaceful resolution of the situation”.
Prime Minister Najib, however, has said his government has rejected the ceasefire offer. He said that he told Philippines President Benigno Aquino III that there is no alternative except for the militants to lay down their weapons.
“They have to surrender their arms and they have to do it as soon as possible,”
Militants’ Behavior an affront to Islam
The crisis has outraged Malaysians, spurring calls for decisive action by the authorities.
“We have tried to resolve the matter without bloodshed, but we find that these Sulu people are violent. They not only kill soldiers, but also mutilate the dead. They are supposed to be Muslims, but their actions are contrary to Islamic teachings,” former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said in comments to The Sun.
“The government needs to take stern action since events have already taken a bloody turn and our people have been killed. I don’t think there is any other way to deal with this except for our government to launch a counter-attack so we can wipe out the intruders once and for all. Even if it means more intruders will be killed, it is unavoidable because they started the attack on Sabah first, not us,” he continued.
Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, meanwhile, urged Malaysians to stay calm and united.
“We urge this issue not to be used to accuse anybody, and our leaders need to pay attention to our country’s safety, especially facing armed forces fighting at the border,” he told reporters.
Nadiah Wahyuni, a 26-year-old resident of Selangor state, said she supports efforts by the Malaysian authorities to drive out the intruders but hopes further bloodshed can be avoided.
“The attack that our forces launched was not wrong, just like other people will take steps to protect their people and land. We defend our things and protect what we believe is ours. It’s all about our sovereignty,” she told Khabar Southeast Asia.
“I will leave it fully to our government because I do believe their actions will be the best thing for us. The government will not admit defeat to them [the gunmen] and will give some comfort to society by protecting our safety,” she said.
“It’s inevitable sometimes,” Nadiah said of the casualties. “The incident happened and many people died during the clashes. We wish for no more fallen people there, especially innocent people.” – By Samuel Bahari