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By Niluksi Koswanage
KUALA LUMPUR, March 3 Gunmen have killed five
policemen in Malaysia's Sabah state where members of an armed
faction from the Philippines are staking an ancient claim to the
remote corner of Borneo island and have been facing off with
The violence could reignite tension between the Philippines
and Malaysia, threaten growing economic interests in the
resource-rich region and even lead to a delay in a Malaysian
The shootings late on Saturday followed the killings on
Friday of two policemen and 12 members of the faction, who are
followers of the sultan of Sulu, a south Philippine region, who
occupied a Sabah village in February to press their claim.
The killing of the five policemen in an ambush about 150 km
(93 miles) away from the main standoff, adds to fears that
insecurity is spreading in a region that has been of increasing
interest to investors.
Malaysia's inspector general of police, Ismail Omar, tried
to ease any worries on Sunday, saying things were under control.
"I don't want speculation that Sabah is in crisis," Ismail
told a news conference in the town of Lahad Datu. "We have our
security forces at three places to respond."
Sabah is a crucial state in a general election that
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak must call by the end of
April and which could be the closest in the country's history.
If security in Sabah worsens, he could be forced to delay
the election and he would be vulnerable to criticism over the
government's handling of the problem. Najib has promised
"drastic action" if the group does not leave.
The confrontation had threatened to damage ties between the
Philippines and Malaysia. The neighbours have periodically been
at odds over security and migration problems along their sea
A surge in recent decades of Philippine immigrants to Sabah,
many of whom work in palm oil plantations, has sparked
resentment and promised to be a hot election issue even before
the Sulu sultanate supporters arrived.
Investors will also be concerned about the bloodshed.
Oil majors like ConocoPhillips and Shell
have poured in large sums to develop oil and gas fields in
Sabah. Chinese companies have been investing in hydro-power and
Ismail said two gunmen had been killed in Saturday's
encounter, while three had been arrested near Lahad Datu. Two
army battalions had been sent and were on standby, he said.
He declined to comment on a report in Philippine media
quoting the sultan's family in Manila as saying Filipinos in
Sabah were holding four security officials hostage.
Sabah is a stronghold of the ruling National Front coalition
but the opposition has started to make inroads, partly on
concern over immigration. The government has been accused of
handing out citizenship rights to thousands of immigrants in
exchange for votes since the 1990s.
For generations Borneo, one of the world's biggest islands,
was a forbidding expanse of jungle, thinly populated by
head-hunting tribesmen, and claimed by Muslim sultans and later
European colonialists based in coastal trading towns.
Colonial Britain and the Netherlands carved up the island in
the nineteenth century and Malaysia and Indonesia took their
shares upon independence. Britain agreed to independence for the
tiny oil-rich sultanate of Brunei on Borneo's west coast.
But under a pre-colonial pact between sultans, Sulu, in the
Philippines, was awarded control of the northern corner of
Borneo, in what would later become Malaysia.
A British trading company agreed during colonial times to
pay Sulu a nominal lease for Sabah - it now amounts to 5,300
ringgit ($1,700) a year - and the claim of the ancient Sulu
sultanate on Sabah was all but forgotten, until February.
Then, about 150 followers of the Sulu sultanate, which has
no power but commands respect in the southern Philippines,
sailed in and occupied a Sabah village, staking their claim and
demanding a renegotiation of Sabah's lease.
Malaysia has said the demands will not be met. Both Malaysia
and the Philippines have called on the gunmen to go home.
The trouble looks to be at least partly the result of
efforts to forge peace in the southern Philippines, in
particular a peace deal signed between the Philippine government
and Muslim rebels last October to end a 40-year conflict.
Jamalul Kiram, a former sultan of Sulu and brother of the
man Philippine provincial authorities regard as sultan, said the
peace deal had handed control of much of Sulu to Moro Islamic
Liberation Front rebels, ignoring the sultanate.
The sultan loyalists had gone to Malaysia to revive their
claim to Sabah as a protest in response to what they saw as the
unfair peace deal, he said.
(Reporting by Niluksi Koswanage in KUALA LUMPUR; Additional
reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA; Editing by Stuart
Grudgings and Robert Birsel)