BY CLARA CHOOI
ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 — Prove you are a Muslim country, the Sulu Sultanate has challenged Malaysia, wielding the religious card in a last-ditch effort to stop the deadly crackdown against its followers in Sabah.
Jacel Kiram, the daughter of the self-styled Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, pointed out that the Islamic faith considers it a sin to steal the land of others or to pilfer from it.
“In Islam, if you grab the land of another, when you eat the fruit of the land that is not yours [it is a sin]… Malaysia is a Muslim country, it should prove it’s being a Muslim,” she said in an interview with ABN-CBS network’s “Bottomline” programme yesterday.
Jacel maintained her family’s conviction that the Sulu Sultanate still has ownership of Sabah, citing historical records dating back to the late 17th century when the Brunei Sultan gifted the land, known as North Borneo, to the Sulu Sultan in exchange for the latter’s help in suppressing a rebellion.
She pointed to Sabah’s richness in resources and said that should the Sultanate achieve its ownership goal, “we can lay claim over US$73 billion (RM226 billion) of its resources, not one Filipino will anymore experience poverty.”
Jacel also denied claims of conspiracy that have been bandied about in the media, and insisted that her family was not after money but was looking for brighter futures for their family and their followers in the Philippines’ Muslim south.
She pointed out to ABN-CBS that her father Jamalul was even once offered the post of president in exchange for dropping his claim on Sabah but dropped it out of principle.
“If this is all about money, I remember when my father was offered by someone [in the past], ‘boss, just sign this [cede Sabah] and you will be next president of the Philippines. My father said, ‘Pare, it’s too heavy, I can’t carry that’,” she was quoted as saying.
“I got goosebumps (when I heard that). My father is priceless.”
She maintained that the struggle in Sabah was more about honour and integrity, not just for the Sulu Sultanate but all of the Philippines.
“The issue here now is honour above life. What is life without honour,” she said, according to ABN-CBS News. “We carry the whole sultanate, the whole country, the people.”
Jacel’s uncle, Sulu “crown prince” Agbimuddin Kiram, landed in Lahad Datu, Sabah, with a group of over 200 armed rebels on February 9 to lay the sultanate’s claim over the territory.
Their intrusion spurred both the Malaysian and the Philippine governments to attempt a peaceful solution to the protracted territorial dispute that could see recent improvements in bilateral ties scuttled.
But negotiations with the Kiram family fell flat and on the 20th day of the armed incursion on March 1, Malaysian security forces clashed in ground battles with Agbimuddin and his forces.
Over 20 Sulu gunmen and two Malaysian commandos were killed in the first of the battles in Lahad Datu, a coastal district separated from the Philippines by a mere 40-minute boat ride.
The Sulu clan refused to lay down arms, however, and an ambush in Semporna, a neighbouring district about two hours outside of Lahad Datu, saw six more Malaysian lives claimed.
Videos and reports that the bodies of those who were killed were desecrated and brutalised by the Filipino militants went viral on the Internet, adding fuel to an already delicate situation.
Last Monday, the Philippine government said it had no choice but to leave the fate of the Sulu army in Sabah in the hands of Malaysia’s security forces, noting repeated attempts to coax the invaders back to the Philippines to broker a peace deal.
President Benigno Aquino III’s spokesman Ricky Carandang was reported as saying that repeated attempts at negotiating a peaceful resolution with the armed rebels had failed.
“We’ve done everything we could to prevent this, but in the end, Kiram’s people chose this path,” he said in a report on ABN-CBS News.
On Tuesday, Malaysia launched Ops Daulat, an all-out mission to kill and destroy the rebel group, that started with aerial attacks of bombs and artillery fire.
The Kiram family called for a ceasefire two days later on Thursday but refused to abandon its claim on Sabah. Its call was immediately rejected by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who demanded that the militants surrender unconditionally or face death.
On Saturday, Jacel appealed to the remaining members of the rebel group to stay loyal to Agbimuddin, pointing out that their landing in Sabah on February 9 was merely their peaceful return “home”.
“Please remain... this is honour above life,” she was quoted as saying in a report on Philippine media network ABN-CBS News website. “Their only wish is to stay there... it is their home, they want to live there peacefully.”
A total of 62 people have been killed so far since March 1, including 53 Sulu militants, eight Malaysian policemen and an unidentified teenager.