Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - Saying there was no turning back, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III has declared that his followers who crossed into the town of Lahad Datu in the Malaysian state of Sabah this month were staying put to reclaim their ancestral homeland.
Kiram said his followers were resolute despite being cornered by security forces, with the Kuala Lumpur government insisting the group return to the Philippines. He earlier said his group numbered 300, but Malaysia put it at between 80 and 100.
"Why should we leave our own home? In fact they (the Malaysians) are paying rent [to us]," he told reporters in Manila on Sunday.
"Our followers will stay in Lahad Datu. Nobody will be sent to the Philippines. Sabah is our home," he said.
The sultan did not directly threaten violence but said "there will be no turning back for us."
Malaysian officials have said that many in the group have weapons, but Kiram insisted his followers made the trip unarmed.
"If they have arms, they were already in Sabah," the sultan said.
"These people are willing to die for our cause," he told Reuters.
The southern Philippine-based Islamic sultanate once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the standoff, and its heirs have been receiving a nominal yearly compensation package from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement for possession of Sabah.
Kiram said he was prompted to send the group to Sabah after the sultanate was left out of a framework agreement sealed last October between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which paves the way for an autonomous area in Mindanao.
Right to stay
'The sultanate's spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, later said the sultan's brother, Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, who led the group to Sabah, had told him via telephone that the party was preparing to stay.
"The objective is to reside now in that place permanently, considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty," he told Agence France-Presse.
Idjirani said the group would not instigate violence but would resist if provoked.
"We recognise the capability of Malaysia. We don't have the arms and capacity but we have the historical truth," he said, adding that the group's "fate is to see the recognition they are entitled to ... or they die defending their ancestral rights."
Idjirani said President Benigno Aquino's senior aides had been in contact with the sultan and were willing to deliver a letter to the Malaysian government on his behalf for negotiations.
Group urged to return
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) yesterday repeated calls on Kiram's group to return home.
"We want this issue to be settled in a peaceful manner," DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez told a news briefing. "We are calling on them to leave Lahad Datu as soon as possible so that the situation will not escalate further. We would like them to leave and go home immediately."
"What is important for now is for them to leave that area because this could affect existing issues we have including peace talks and possible bilateral relations," he said.
Hernandez said the Philippines was attempting to get in touch with the group in Sabah directly, but he refused to give details.
"There are no reports of any violence and there are no reports of bloodshed. They (Malaysian authorities) are talking to the group and also to our officials, our security and defence officials are also talking with their counterparts in Malaysia," Hernandez said.
"Negotiations are now focused on making sure our people there are able to go back safely and that their safety and security are of importance and that we are able to resolve this through negotiation."
No talks on Sabah claim
Hernandez said on Monday there were no discussions on the Sabah claim "at this point in time".
"We appreciate Malaysian government's actions to resolve this situation as soon as possible in line with the instruction of Prime Minister Najib Razak," Hernandez said. "The Malaysian government chose to handle the issue through negotiations and to get the group to leave peacefully to prevent bloodshed."
"Hopefully there will be a softening of a position," Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said in a briefing Monday.
"The incident is very sensitive and, as such, we are withholding comment and deferring to the DFA," Valte said.
Valte declined to comment on whether Nur Misuari, chairman of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) who questioned the MILF deal, had anything to do with the standoff.
"Hopefully not," she said. "Maybe there are other groups that are attempting something because we have come to a point in the peace process where it is actually possible to attain peace. And we're doing everything on that front to make sure that happens."
"We are on a wait-and-see attitude," Abu Ambri Taddik, MNLF deputy secretary general, told the Inquirer in an interview on Sunday.
He said if the intention of the sultan was to pursue the issue of ownership of Sabah without politics, many people in the sultanate would support him.
"I think both governments should sit down and jointly help diffuse the situation," Sen. Gregorio Honasan said on Sunday in Cagayan de Oro City. "If left unattended, it might become more complicated because of [the possibility] of an armed confrontation."
Reports from AFP; Reuters; Tarra Quismundo, TJ Burgonio and Arlyn dela Cruz in Manila; and Bobby Lagsa, Inquirer Mindanao