This story is over 5 years old.


The Bizarre and Deadly Fight to Be Crowned the Sultan of Sulu

Sabah is a moderately sized state in the most northeastern part of Malaysia. It's best known for housing an incredibly brutal Japanese POW camp during World War II. However, it's also been the catalyst for decades of squabbling between the Malaysian...
Κείμενο Sascha Kouvelis

Jamalul Kiram III.

Sabah is a moderately sized state in the most northeastern part of Malaysia. It's probably best known for being quite hilly and for housing an incredibly brutal Japanese POW camp during World War II. However, it's also been the catalyst for decades of squabbling between the Malaysian government and various feuding families from the neighboring Filipino island of Sulu, who both claim to be the rightful owners of the area. Now, that squabbling is starting to kill people.


It's easy to see why the Malaysian government wants the land: it boasts 11 to 12 trillion cubic feet of gas and at least 1.5 billion barrels of oil in its reserves. The Filipinos are probably motivated by this, too, but their claim on the area's natural resources are slightly more idiosyncratic. About 350 years ago, the sultan of Brunei gave Sabah to the sultan of Sulu as a reward for helping him quell a rebellion. However, the role of sultan of Sulu hasn't officially existed since 1986, so now there are a bunch of people claiming to be the true heir to the throne in an attempt to be recognized as Sabah's ruler.

While most Filipino presidents have tended to steer clear of the squabbles, the situation is getting progressively harder for them to ignore. At the beginning of February, a guy named Jamalul Kiram III—one of the many claimants to the sultanate of Sulu—sent 200 or so Filipinos into Sabah to take over Lahud Datu, a small fishing village, and reclaim Sabah. A leisurely two and a half weeks after they arrived, the Malaysian government decided it was time to send in tanks, navy vessels, and jets to get rid of them. It worked—as tanks and jets often do—but eight lives were lost in the process.

The aftermath of a firefight in Sabah.

In an attempt to justify his claim, Jamalul is playing that surefire diplomatic battle card: semantics. In 1878, the reigning sultan of Sulu made a deal with some guys from the British Empire. At the time, Sabah was known as North Borneo, and the sultan agreed to allow the British to exploit the area's natural resources for an annual rent payment of Mexican gold. The British relinquished control in 1963, and since then, the Malaysian government that subsequently assumed control of the area has paid the rent (around $1,800 a month split among all the Sulu heirs, including Jamalul).


But the meaning of one of the words used in the original contract is being disputed. That word is padjakMalaysia and Britain say it means “cession,” which would mean that back in 1878 the sultan of Sulu transferred ownership of the area to the British in perpetuity. Meanwhile, Abraham Idjirani—a spokesperson for Jamalul—maintains that it means “lease.” The fact that the Malaysian government still pay the figure to the Sulu heirs every year is being cited by Jamalul as evidence that the area is still being "leased" by the Malaysian government. Clearly, all of the men claiming to be the sultan of Sulu now want Sabah back.

Jamalul has used this piece of history to justify his decision to send an armed militia—the "Royal Army of Sulu"—into the region. However, being the catalyst for the death of many Filipinos in Sabah probably isn't going to help him convince Malaysia to recognize his position. I mean, it's conventionally tricky for a government to declare someone a sultan if they've already been accused of being a transnational terrorist.

The other top runner for the Sultan position is the youngest possible candidate in the family—at a sprightly 46, Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram is the oldest son of the last official sultan of Sulu, Manakuttah Kiram. Of course, a clear line of succession isn't hard to spot here, but Muedzul was denied the throne because he was underage when his father died in 1986. So, instead of being formally recognized as sultan, the 20-year-old Muedzul stuck to his studies in Pakistan, while his uncles fought for the title.


Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram in the shades.

One of his uncles, Fuad Kiram—surprise, surprise, another claimant of the sultan title—claims Muedzul can't be sultan because he is haram, a transgressor of Islam and God's law. A representative of Fuad described to me how Muedzul apparently grabbed the "private part" of a woman in public and slapped a young boy with his wife, Melanie Kiram, leading to a criminal case being filed against them. That allegation was dismissed by Muedzul's chancellor, Andres Linholm, when he showed me police documents confirming a clean criminal record. Linholm explained that the various members of the family would do and say anything to take the throne, which he described as "sad because they are all linked by blood."

Other Filipino citizens who previously had absolutely nothing to do with the situation are now becoming so tantalized by the story that they're offering to join the insurgence in Sabah. Jamalul's exhortation that "[Sabah] is our home" has been echoed by many Filipino Muslim farmers in Sulu who suffer from unproductive land, aware that prospects are much better in Sabah.

When I met Andres, he showed me a number of emails on his phone from people in Sulu—one from a man who claimed, "I'm a professional and I can provide you with any arms you need to take to Sabah." However, according to Andres, "my sultan, Muedzul, doesn't even want violence, he wants peace." So either Andres was lying, or the people of Sulu are just so desperate for someone to go and reclaim Sabah for them that they're emailing weapons offers to anyone with the last name "Kiram."


The whole mess explained in a diagram (click to enlarge).

To make the situation even less complex, Jamalul has attempted to rope in exactly the kind of people you want when you're trying to bring serenity and order to a crisis: an armed Muslim rebel group. The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) are fighting for autonomy in a region of the Philippines that includes both Sabah and Sulu. Jamalul claims the MNLF sent in soldiers to assist the Malaysian government in Sabah, but when I contacted them, they flat-out denied the claims and accused Jamalul of using their name as propaganda to inflate his own claim to be Sultan. To be honest, I have no idea who to believe anymore.

Midyear elections in both Malaysia and the Philippines heighten the pressure to resolve the crisis, as both governments have already come under fire for their poor handling of the situation. Malaysia was slammed for its inability to protect its borders, then for the extreme force they used to get rid of their unwanted guests, while the Filipino government has been accused of failing to protect its citizens.

If only Muedzul had been a year older in 1986, perhaps none of this would be happening—something that presumably dances through the nightmares of Benigno Aquino, the president of the Philippines, who is now being pressured to name a sultan of Sulu and subsequently deal with what kind of rights to Sabah that title affords its recipient.


The coronation of Mahakuttah Kiram as the Sultan of Sulu in 1974.

As comical and absurd as the squabble for the title of sultan might seem, the ongoing conflict is turning into something much more worrisome. The armed violence in Sabah isn't good news for the 800,000 Filipino Muslims living there, with the marginalization stemming from the conflict already forcing some of them out of the region.

Ban Ki Moon, secretary general of the UN, recently told both sides to ensure they “act in full respect of international norms and standards” as the death toll, already at 72, steadily increases. Outrage at the invasion is quickly manifesting itself in petitions, Facebook posts, and tweets by Sabahans, who seem to want to remain part of Malaysia. They claim that anyone who thinks their home should be belong to a Filipino sultan is a “tyrant and madman with no respect for the freedom and rights of others.”

At the time of writing, Jamalul Kiram III has accused the Malaysian government of trying to assassinate him. Whatever the case, the dispute has already been going for 27 years, so there's no reason to believe that the conflict is going to be resolved any time soon.

Follow Sascha on Twitter: @saschakouvelis

More from Malaysia and their happy neighbours in the Philippines:

Helping the Malaysian Government Find Gay Guys With Grindr

Flipped-out Prison

Happy Crucifixion!