by Alito L. Malinao
MANILA, Feb. 28 (Xinhua) -- More than two weeks after some 300 followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, some of them armed, occupied the village of Tanduao, in the town of Lahad Datu in the Malaysian state of Sabah, the standoff continues as both Manila and Kuala Lumpur scrambled to find a peaceful way out the impasse.
Late Wednesday, the Malaysian government agreed to extend, for the third time, its deadline for the followers of Sultan Kiram to peacefully return to Sulu in the southernmost tip of the Philippines where they came from.
The first deadline lapsed on Friday; it was extended for another 48 hours but this too expired last Tuesday but still the followers of the Sultan Kiram and the armed members of the so- called "royal army" of the Sulu sultanate refused to stand down.
The followers of Sultan Kiram, who have encamped in Tanduao since Feb. 12, are now surrounded by heavily-armed Malaysian police. Reports from Kuala Lumpur said that military units have joined the police in encircling the "intruders".
The Tuesday Malaysian deadline prompted Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to virtually issue an ultimatum to Sultan Kiram to order his followers to return to the Philippines or face the consequences of his action.
At a press conference in Malacanang Palace, the Office of the President of the Philippines. Aquino told Kiram that because the deadline loomed, the situation was nearing "the point of no return ".
"We are fast approaching that point," Aquino said, apparently referring to the 48-hour extended deadline imposed by Malaysian authorities for the group led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of the sultan, to leave the village of Tanduao in Sabah.
The President said as president and chief executor of Philippine laws, he has ordered an investigation into possible violations of law by Kiram and his followers.
Aquino warned the Sulu Sultan that he would face the "full force of the law"--possibly including arrest--unless he withdrew his armed followers from Sabah.
But just minutes after his ultimatum, the ailing Kiram said that his followers would stay put in Sabah, in effect ignoring Aquino's ultimatum.
In a press briefing in his residence in Taguig City, a suburb of Manila, Kiram said his men would not return home "until an arrangement has been done by our officials and the President, and if that will be arranged accordingly with a written agreement signed by the parties concerned."
The Sulu Sultan, who has been suffering from diabetes for years, said he was ready to go to jail if the government filed a case against him and members of his clan.
Kiram insisted that he is the head of the Sulu sultanate, which once controlled parts of Borneo, to which the site of the standoff belongs.
After Aquino's ultimatum, the Department of Foreign Affairs dispatched Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jose Brillantes to Kuala Lumpur to plead for more time to settle the standoff.
Malaysia's extension of the deadline on Wednesday was obviously the result of the trip of Brillantes, a former Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia.
A radio report early Wednesday said Malaysia's National Security Council (NSC) had taken over the standoff situation between the group of Sulu sultanate-led Filipino "intruders" and Malaysian authorities in Sabah.
The radio report said Deputy Inspector General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar was coordinating with Sabah police and the military in trying to resolve the standoff.
Two weeks ago, in announcing that his followers have occupied a coastal village in Sabah, Kiram said that they were forced to make the move because they were left out by the Philippine government in the forging of the framework agreement for peace in predominantly Muslim territory in the southern Philippines.
The Manila government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ( MILF) have signed in October last year the framework agreement that would guide negotiators in forging a final peace agreement between the two sides.
Kiram's followers now in Sabah are reportedly remnants or relatives of the members of the Moro National Liberation Front ( MNLF), the original secessionist movement in Mindanao but which has signed a peace deal with the government in l996.
The present leaders of the MILF were former top commanders of the MNLF who rejected the peace deal. They then formed the MILF and vowed to continue the fight against the Manila government.
What has compounded the problem was the announcement of President Aquino that he himself is "confused" about the historical antecedents that led to the standoff.
But various historical records from 1473 to 1658 showed that Sabah was part of the Sultanate of Brunei. In l658, the sultan of Brunei ceded Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu in compensation for his help in settling a civil war in Brunei.
In January l878, the Sulu sultanate signed an agreement to lease Sabah to the British North Borneo Company, which took over the administration of Borneo from the British empire, for 5,000 Malaysian ringgit (about 1,925 U.S. dollars) a year.
The Kirams claimed that the lease was still in effect despite the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in l963. They claimed that they continue to receive the paltry sum through the Malaysian embassy in Manila up to this time.