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Filipino sultan’s quest sparks crisis in Malaysia

March 7, 2013
Filipino sultan’s quest sparks crisis in Malaysia thumbnail

Unlike many other Muslim royalties basking in grand palaces and opulent lifestyles, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III’s kingdom sits in a rundown two-story house in a poor Islamic community in Manila, the only hint of power and glory the title attached to his name.

“I’m the poorest sultan in the world,” the ailing Kiram, 74, told The Associated Press in an interview in his residence in Maharlika village in the Philippine capital.

Although largely forgotten and dismissed as a vestige from a bygone era, Kiram’s sultanate sparked the biggest security crisis in Malaysia and the Philippines in decades when his younger brother early last month led about 200 followers, dozens of them armed, by boat from the southern Philippines a short distance away to a village in Sabah in the vast, oil-rich Borneo region to claim the land the sultanate insists belongs to them.

A stunned Malaysia, which runs the frontier region of timberlands and palm oil plantations as its second-largest federal state, poured in elite police and army troops and called in airstrikes to quell what it called an armed intrusion. Sporadic clashes have so far killed 19 intruders and eight policemen. Troops launched a full-scale assault Tuesday, codenamed “Operation Sovereign,” but failed to account for most of the Filipinos, who according to the Kiram family were unhurt.

Malaysian forces shot and possibly killed one of the men, who appear to be trying to escape the area, police said. Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said later Wednesday that security forces combing the area found 12 bodies. However, it was not clear if they died in Tuesday’s strike or in another clash last week that left a dozen of the Filipinos dead.

The crisis has tested the neighbors’ friendly ties and hit the leaders of both nations at a delicate time politically.

The Kirams claim Sabah has belonged to their sultanate for centuries and was only leased to Malaysia, which they say pays them a paltry annual rent of 5,300 Malaysian ringgit ($1,708). Malaysian officials contend the payments are part of an arrangement under which the sultanate has ceded the 74,000 square kilometers (28,000 square miles) of Sabah territory to their country.

Philippine presidents have relegated the volatile feud to the backburner despite efforts by the Kirams to put it back to the national agenda. The Feb. 9 Sabah expedition by the sultan’s younger brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, and the ensuing violence have resurrected the long-dormant issue with the murky history beyond anybody’s expectations.

Overran by history, the Kirams carry royal titles and nothing much else. [More]

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