The standoff at Lahad Datu began on 11 February 2013 when over 200 armed men from the self-proclaimed “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” illegally entered Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia. The travelled by boat from Southern Philippines and crossed the porous maritime border between Malaysia and Philippines. The gunmen pledged loyalty to Jamalul Kiram III, who is one of the several men claiming the title as the Sultan of Sulu.

Map of Sabah and the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia Commons
Map of Sabah and the Philippines. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Malaysian authorities quickly cordoned off the village which the gunmen were hiding in and started negotiations with the leader of the group, a man named Agbimuddin Kiram. Discussions were conducted after the gunmen were cornered but there was little progress. Malaysian negotiators repeatedly called for the group to “leave Sabah peacefully”,[1] but the group of gunmen refused to surrender. Despite the urging of Malaysian and Filipino officials, the clan members of Jamalul Kiram III also remained defiant, telling reporters that Sabah is “owned by the Sultan of Sulu”, and called on the Malaysian government to increase the payment to lease Sabah, among other demands.[2]
Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. Source:
Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. Source:

In such a stalemate, the peaceful standoff quickly deteriorated to an armed conflict on 1 March 2013, when two Malaysian police officers and twelve gunmen were shot and killed in a shootout at the village. In the next day, another six Malaysian police officers and six gunmen were killed in a second shootout in the town of Semporna, which is hours away from the epicenter at Lahad Datu. These two incidents sparked off fears among Malaysians that the standoff was quickly becoming a wider conflict, and that there could be armed intruders in other parts of Sabah.

The Royal Malaysian Police and Malaysian Armed Forces responded to the killings with a combined assault against the gunmen on 5 March 2013, named Ops Daulat (Operation Sovereignty). Royal Malaysia Air Force fighter jets attacked the village in Lahad Datu and ground forces soon moved in for an assault to eliminate the gunmen three weeks after they first landed in Sabah. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib said as he announced the assault that the “government must take action to safeguard the dignity and sovereignty of the country”.[3]

Malaysian military forces moving in against the Sulu gunmen at Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu. Source: Bernama
Malaysian military forces moving in against the Sulu gunmen at Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu. Source: Bernama

The assault dispersed the gunmen into the surrounding area. It also emerged after the assault that the bodies of some dead Malaysian policemen were mutilated by the gunmen. Malaysian authorities soon widened their operation to mop up the remnants of the gunmen who survived the assault, and there were sporadic gun battles as Malaysian troops battled the gunmen. Despite saying that his forces would “fight to the last man”, Jamalul Kiram III attempted to call for a ceasefire between both sides on 7 March 2013, but was rebuffed by the Malaysian authorities. PM Najib demanded “the militants to unconditionally surrender and hand over their weapons”, saying that the military will continue to hunt the gunmen down unless they give up.[4]

The dispute over Sabah
This standoff also highlighted the intractable dispute over the status of Sabah. The dispute has its roots during the colonial era, before the independence of both Malaysia and the Philippines.

Sabah was originally a gift from the Sultan of Brunei to the Sulu Sultanate for their help in suppressing a rebellion in 1685. In 1878, the Sulu Sultanate agreed to “lease” Sabah to a British company in exchange for rent. The British government acquired control of Sabah and eventually administered it as a crown colony in 1946.

The issue resurfaced again in the 1960s, when an heir of the Sulu Sultanate ceded Sabah to the government of the Philippine under President Diosdado Macapagal. The inclusion of Sabah into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 drew strong protests from Indonesia and the Philippines. To settle the dispute, the British and the United Nations sent a commission led by Lord Cobbold to determine the wishes of the people of Sabah. The Cobbold Commission found that the majority of people in Sabah favoured joining Malaysia, and hence the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, which included Sabah.

Heirs to the Sulu Sultanate continued to press Malaysia to renegotiate the terms of the Sabah agreement over the year, which included increasing the rent from RM5,300 (S$2,130) to as much as US$855 million (S$1.06 billion). They claim that the original agreement in 1878 only leased, not ceded Sabah to the British, and the continued rent payment by the Malaysians after 1963 only proved this point.[5]

As of 24 March 2013, operations are still ongoing. 10 Malaysian policemen and soldiers were killed, along with 54 gunmen. Several more policemen and soldiers were injured in sporadic gunfights. 408 people were arrested and detained by Malaysian authorities for suspected links to the gunmen.[6]

The dispute over the status of Sabah is unlikely to be resolved soon. While, both the governments of Malaysia and the Philippines face considerable domestic pressure to resolve the issue, both sides are unlikely to do so for fear of losing their claim should they bring the issue to the International Court of Justice. To make matters worse, the competing claims to the throne of the Sulu Sultanate by a number of self-proclaimed heirs also make negotiations difficult. While this episode of armed conflict may be resolved when the Malaysian forces eliminate the intruders, it is unlikely that the same will happen with the dispute over Sabah.

Thinking questions
  1. Are the actions of the gunmen and the Sultan of Sulu justified? Why
  2. Is an all-out assault the only way to resolve the standoff at Lahad Datu? What are some other measures which could be used?
  3. How can this protracted territorial dispute over Sabah be resolved?

[1] Filipino group on Borneo claims to represent sultanate, Malaysia says
[2] Malaysia soldiers attack armed Filipino clan in Borneo
[3] Malaysia launches operation to end militant stand-off
[4] Malaysia rejects ceasefire offer from Filipino group
[5] The dispute over Sabah
[6] Lahad Datu: Security forces nab two key figures of Sulu terror group