Just as Malacañang assured that it is not dropping the Sabah claim of the Sultanate of Sulu, a deep split surfaced on Wednesday within the fractured Kiram family that may scuttle possible talks between the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia.
This after a faction which appears supportive of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) rose to claim leadership of the sultanate.
Lawyer Rexie Bugarin, an MNLF senior adviser, claimed one of the nine families claiming rightful and ancestral rights to the sultanate should be the recognized representative of the people of Sulu.
Even Abraham Idjirani, self-styled secretary general and spokesman of the heirs to the defunct sultanate, recognized Sultan Phugdalun Kiram II as the sultan of Sulu and North Borneo.
He was said to have succeeded Jamalul Kiram II who died in 2013, months after sending more than 230 Tausug warriors to Malaysia. Sixty of them were killed in what the Malaysian government said was an incursion by the Filipinos on the island which the Philippines has been claiming since 1950.
Malaysia only came to form as a federation in 1963, a year after another claim was made official by the government of the Philippines through then-President Diosdado Macapagal.
The MNLF also has a claim over the island as its founding chairman Nur Misuari had married sisters Desdemona and Eleonora Rohaida Tan, who are related to some leading members of the Royal House of Sulu.
Desdemona was Misuari’s first wife. She died of an illness in Islamabad, Pakistan many years ago.
Misuari also married Eleonora Rohaida, elder sister of the deceased Desdemona. He had three more wives after Eleonora Rohaida.
The MNLF, the erstwhile secessionist group, also laid claim to Sabah and its neighboring Sarawak, both in Malaysia.
Malaysia has said Sabah is originally a part of the Malaysian federation.
Sabah was a gift to the Sultanate of Sulu by a Bruneian leader whom the Tausugs had helped win a military dispute in the 15th Century.
It was leased to the British North Borneo Company in the 17th Century.
The island fell in the hands of the invading Japanese forces during World War II and came under the control of the British government after the last great war.
It was during this time when the Philippine government was given its sovereignty by the Sulu sultanate, resulting in the 1950 House of Representative resolution laying claim to the island. The resolution was filed by then Congressman Diosdado Macapagal, who also made an official claim to the island in 1962 after his election to the presidency.
The officially recognized leader of the Royal House of Sulu is Ampun Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, who is calling for unity among the family members in order to pursue a stronger claim to Sabah.
His branch of the house also brushed off the other claimant with Prime Minister or Wazir Amroussi Rasul, speaking in behalf of Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, saying there is only one leader of Sulu.
“That’s their (Phugdalun Kiram II) right in a democracy,” Rasul said. “But our Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram is the legitimate leader of the Royal House of Sul following our centuries-old tradition of succession.”
Rasul also disclosed that Sultan Muedzul will soon seek a meeting with President Rodrigo Duterte, who on Tuesday was assured by his spokesman Harry Roque that he will “not drop” the Sabah claim.
“Sabah will not be dropped by the President,” Roque reiterated. “And it is not a reason for our good relations with Malaysia to turn sour.”
“Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram is requesting to meet with PRRD to discuss the next steps for the resolution of the claim,” Rasul stated. “We also thank the President for that assurance of not dropping the claim.”
Rasul, however, reiterated that efforts to unify the sultanate’s leading families should be prioritized so that only one voice will be heard by both the Philippine government and Malaysia.
Bugaring, meanwhile, accused Malaysia of sowing division in the family to muddle the Sabah issue. He even charged the federation of creating breakaway groups to discredit the hierarchy of the sultanate.
“MNLF chairman Nur Misuari has put on hold Independence and supported Federalism — the advocacy of President Duterte — as the new form government to pursue the Sultanate of Sulu’s proprietary and historic right over Sabah,” Bugaring said.
But he accused some groups claiming to be heirs of the Sultanate and chastised them for disowning the MNLF’s independent efforts to pursue the claim. Bugaring said a faction in the family had mistakenly claimed to have authorized the former rebel group to pursue claim on the disputed territory.
Bugaring called the emergence of another Sultanate as classic example of Malaysia’s alleged divide and rule tactic.
He claimed Malaysia had sponsored peace talks with another MNLF group despite the existing 1996 peace agreement between Misuari and the government.
The abandonment of the pact, he said, triggered the Zamboanga siege in 2013 that resulted in the death of 120 rebels.
He also accused some of the faction’s members as having worked with the former President Benigno Aquino III whom he said had helped Malaysia neutralize Jamalul Kiram II’s army.
He did not specify if he was referring to Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram’s branch in the family.
Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram is the nephew of the late Jamalul Kiram II, who acted as the caretaker Sultan of the Royal House of Sulu as his present sultan nephew was still a minor when his father, Sultan Mohammad Mahakuttah Abdulla Kiram, died in 1986.