MANILA, Philippines - The standoff in Sabah has infuriated President Aquino, who suspects that the incident is meant to sabotage his administration’s peace initiatives with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), reliable sources said yesterday.
The highly placed sources said Malacañang believes Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is not acting on his own in highlighting his family’s claim over Sabah.
Kiram, the sources noted, is ailing and is undergoing dialysis.
Among those being eyed by administration officials as instigators of Kiram are Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chieftain Nur Misuari, former national security adviser Norberto Gonzales and even the President’s uncle, former Tarlac congressman Jose “Peping” Cojuangco and his wife Margarita, who is running for senator under the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA).
Up to 300 followers of Kiram are holed up in Lahad Datu, Sabah and have been surrounded by Malaysian forces. Kiram has said his followers would not leave because “Sabah is our home.”
Malaysia continues to pay rent to the Sulu sultanate for North Borneo, which Kiram’s clan claims as ancestral land. The Philippine claim to Sabah has not been resolved with finality. The other day, Malacañang described the claim as “dormant."
The sources told The STAR that the President was furious over the Sabah incident, as it came on the heels of progress achieved in the government’s peace initiative with the MILF.
A framework peace agreement was signed last year by the Aquino administration with the MILF, which broke away from Misuari’s MNLF when it was negotiating peace with the government.
The sources said the Sulu sultanate’s action in Sabah may also be linked to the recent attacks by an MNLF faction identified with Misuari on Abu Sayyaf strongholds in Jolo, Sulu, ostensibly to secure the release of mostly foreign hostages.
Sources earlier said Misuari did not want to be rendered irrelevant by any peace deal that may be forged with the MILF.
Misuari, who is running as an independent candidate for governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao in the May elections, points out that the government has not fully implemented the peace treaty signed with the MNLF in 1996.
The sources told The STAR that the standoff in Sabah is seen as a way of derailing the peace process with the MILF.
In the 2007 midterm elections, Kiram ran under the Partido Demokratiko Sosyalista ng Pilipinas headed by Gonzales, who reportedly introduced the Sulu sultan to then President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. Kiram became part of the Arroyo administration’s Team Unity senatorial slate, which was endorsed by the MNLF.
Misuari insists that Sabah is part of the Philippines. This is indicated in the 1996 peace treaty with the MNLF. This is not the case in the framework agreement with the MILF.
A military official earlier said Kiram’s Royal Sultanate Army began recruiting members over a decade ago.
“In the following years, they never gave the Philippine government any problem until this standoff in Sabah…until they went to Lahad Datu and declared they have the right to stay in Sabah,” the official, who asked not to be named, said.
The official noted that even the reported armed encounter between the MNLF and Abu Sayyaf in Sulu looked like an acoustic war, with no cadavers being found despite reports of casualties on both sides.
The Cojuangcos are reportedly close to both Misuari and Kiram, and are against the officer-in-charge of the ARMM, Mujiv Hataman.
Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco was supposed to run for vice governor of the ARMM, with Pax Mangudadatu as governor. Mangudadatu was governor of Sultan Kudarat from 1998 to 2007. But the President decided to synchronize the ARMM elections with the midterm polls in May.
Tingting Cojuangco reportedly wants to be part of the transition commission for the framework peace agreement with the MILF, but reliable sources said the President does not want it.