SINGAPORE — A standoff between Malaysian security forces and a Filipino Muslim group showed signs Monday of escalating into a serious political problem for each country’s government, as Kuala Lumpur sent hundreds more troops into a disputed region of Borneo.
For three weeks, Malaysian forces have been facing off against 180 followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, from a remote island in the southwest Philippines. More than 20 people have been reported killed in clashes over the past few days, in the worst violence on Malaysian territory for decades.
The developments thrust a normally quiet corner of Southeast Asia into the spotlight as Malaysia braces for a closely fought general election, expected within weeks. On Monday, veteran Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim called for a meeting with Najib Razak’s coalition government to address the confrontation, while rejecting suggestions in media reports that he helped to incite it.
Meanwhile, in Manila, President Benigno Aquino III is trying to keep on track a peace process with Muslim rebels in the south of his country and has come under mounting domestic criticism for his unsympathetic stance toward the Sulu islanders’ claim.
Both governments were caught off guard last month when armed insurgents landed at a village in Sabah, northeast Borneo. The group are followers of Jamalul Kiram III, who says his claimed title of Sultan of Sulu gives his people an ancestral right to the region.
The violence in Sabah spread over the weekend to Semporna, a stopover used by foreign diving enthusiasts off the southeast coast of Sabah, as well as to the village of Kunak, to the north of Semporna.
In Kuala Lumpur, Anwar held a news conference to criticize the government’s handling of the Sabah incursions and its decision to probe claims that he had instigated the Sulu Sultanate’s attempt to seize Sabah.
His Pakatan Rakyat coalition also called for a meeting with government, as well as a special session of parliament.
The long-ruling Barisan Nasional coalition faces its toughest electoral challenge in decades, and the Sabah issue could prove a test of its record on national defense, political commentators in Malaysia say.
“We are disappointed that the opposition has chosen this moment to try and score cheap, pre-election political points,” a government spokesman said.
The coalition is not expected to improve on its performance at the last election in 2008, when its biggest member-party, the United Malays National Organization, lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament for the first time since independence from Britain in 1957.
The violence could also influence the result of May’s senate elections in the Philippines.
Leaders of a leftist political coalition called Makabayan called on Monday for two days of demonstrations in Manila, outside the Malaysian Embassy and the presidential residence, to protest the Malaysian government’s use of force against the followers of Kiram.
Aquino’s popularity had already suffered over his support for a controversial law that would allow the government to subsidize contraception. Members of his party have warned that discontent over the situation in Sabah could further damage their electoral chances.
A Malaysian government spokesman told the Financial Times that the situation in Sabah was “under control in the three front line areas.”
Ladah Datu, a third location which was the site of the initial incursion, was “under cordon,” with what the spokesman believed were 100 to 200 “intruders” inside.
— Financial Times
Roel Landingin in Manila contributed to this report.