On December 9, Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post reported on an alleged plot by local officials in the southwestern Philippines province of Sulu to invade Sabah, a Malaysian state on the Island of Borneo.
“A secret meeting to discuss plans to send an armed militia to invade the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo Island is believed to have been held by a senior local government official in the southern Philippines,” the paper reported, citing a “senior regional security source.”
According to that report, an official in Sulu gathered 19 mayors from different parts of the Sulu Archipelago to hatch a plot to establish a “Royal Sulu Army.”
Eleven of the 19 mayors were said to have signed off on the plot, with each to provide 50 fighters. The official who called the meeting would reportedly pay the cost “of ammunition and other logistics.”
The source said February 2022 was the tentative time frame for the invasion, as it roughly corresponds with the date of a 2013 incursion into Sabah by Sulu fighters that left dozens dead.
“The potential of the plan to attack Sabah coming to fruition depends on how much political support and funds it can get from various parties,” the source told the South China Morning Post. “Many stakeholders in the Philippines and abroad are willing to exploit this issue for their respective political and strategic interests.”
However, the report, based on a single anonymous source whose nationality is not clear, offers no other corroborating evidence. The alleged conspiracy could also serve to bolster the political fortunes of those seeking support among the Sulu electorate in the run-up to the 2022 general election in the Philippines.
There is history behind all this.
The Sulu Archipelago is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. The archipelago, a double island chain, extends to the eastern shores of Sabah. In 1940, the sultan of Sulu, at that time only a religious leader, recognized the Philippines’ sovereignty over Sulu while maintaining claims over Sabah for the next two decades.
Sabah, previously North Borneo, has long been disputed by the Philippines and Malaysia due to a murky colonial-era transfer.
At the time of the 2013 incursion, in which members of the Royal Army of Sulu briefly occupied a remote part of Sabah, Time magazine offered a succinct overview of the complicated history:
“In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei for some reason gave Sabah to the Sultanate of Sulu, which today is considered part of the Philippines. However, the picture is further complicated by an 1878 deal between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company, in which Sabah was leased to the Europeans on a rolling contract. To this day, the Malaysian government pays a token sum, equivalent to around $1,500, to the Philippines every year in recognition of this continuing arrangement. The Royal Army of Sulu interprets this deal as a lease that can be canceled, while Malaysia believes that it represents the permanent transfer of the territory.”
That history, and the events of 2013, do mean an armed intrusion is possible. But the South China Morning Post report offers no further evidence beyond its source.
The newspaper does report that Malaysia’s inspector general of police and the defense minister as saying the purported plot had not been confirmed. Both officials said they would take the matter seriously, adding they would raise the preparedness of security forces “to the highest level in Sabah.”
However, Sabah police chief Idris Abdullah was dismissive of the report, telling Free Malaysia Today he had not received any information of an alleged plot.
“Maybe you can ask (the South China Morning Post) where they got the information from. I also want to know … but it’s not true,” he told the paper.
“These kinds of rumors are not good, as they can cause panic among the people.”
Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana also wrote off the report as “fake news.”
Lorenzana did confirm that a meeting had been held among Sulu leaders but said “it had nothing to do with Sabah or Malaysia.”
A Philippine regional military spokesperson told Malaysia’s Daily Express that the governor of Sulu had met with 19 provincial mayors. However, he said the purpose of that December 1 meeting was “to develop a project to strengthen the maritime borders of Sulu.”
A statement from the spokesman described how fishermen or seafarer volunteers would be tasked with conducting “maritime patrols in collaboration with the military in Sulu to help improve border control against terrorist and any other lawless elements.”
They would also play a role in response and management during natural disasters in coastal areas.
Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor declined comment on the reported incursion plot, saying he had not received any information about it, or even read the South China Morning Post report.
The decision by the South China Morning Post to run the story may aid disinformation efforts, as many link it to potential electioneering in the Philippines, where general elections are set for May 2022.
Idris, for example, speculated as much, saying “untrue” reports were bound to surface.
Several security officials and intelligence sources agreed.
“It is more a political play to win the elections. Whoever brings up the Sabah claim can gain greater support from the Tausug community,” a regional intelligence source told The Star in Malaysia.
The Tausug, one of the largest Muslim ethnic groups of the southwestern Philippines, mainly live in the Sulu Archipelago, although they also have a small presence in Sabah.
They once ruled over an independent state called the Sultanate of Sulu, which included Sulu and Sabah.
Richard Heydarian, columnist and author of “The Rise of Duterte: A Populist Revolt Against Elite Democracy,” has attributed rhetoric from Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte and other senior officials over Sabah to scoring “patriotic points at home.”
Duterte, who has cultivated a strongman image, has been criticized for acquiescing to creeping Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea. He previously vowed not to relinquish the Philippines’ claims over Sabah.
Constitutionally unable to seek reelection, Duterte recently made waves by dropping a senatorial bid. Speculation abounds about the reason behind that decision.
The move came almost immediately after Duterte’s aide, Senator Christopher “Bong” Go, dropped out of the presidential race. Duterte’s daughter, meanwhile, has decided to pursue the vice presidential post.