Malaysian troops are negotiating with about 100 men from the Philippines who have identified themselves as the ‘royal army’ of the Sulu Sultanate, which has a historic land claim to the area, say police.

KUALA LUMPUR — It’s around an hour by speedboat from Sulu in the southern Philippines to Sabah in the Malaysian part of Borneo, a route often plied by fishermen, traders, and migrants. The maritime passage goes from what is the poorest part of the Philippines to eastern Malaysia, with many making the journey from the Philippines in search of work, joining the 10 million or so Philippine citizens that moved abroad to find jobs.

But when on Tuesday around 100 men arrived in batches to – and depending on what account you read – camp out in, or occupy a village called Lahud Datu, it soon become clear these weren’t the usual fishermen or migrant workers.

What exactly is going on is unclear, but it has both countries on high alert. Malaysian security forces have sealed off the village, which is 300 miles from Sabah’s regional capital Kota Kinabalu, a two-hour flight from Malaysia’s main city Kuala Lumpur.

On Thursday, Malaysia’s Home Affairs Minister Hishamuddin Hussein said that Malaysian security forces had cornered the group, which is said to be armed. By Friday, however, the Sabah police chief was reportedly negotiating with the men, some of whom were claiming to be descendants of the Sultan of Sulu and therefore, they said, entitled to land in this part of Malaysia.

What is the Sultanate, anyway?

The territory existed from the late 15th century until the late 19th century and spanned parts of Sulu and northern Borneo.

Though the sultanate is not recognized internationally anymore, Malaysia still pays a token “rental fee” to the heirs of the last sultan.

The claims could put the Philippines in an awkward position, given that the men camped out in Lahud Datu are Philippine nationals.

Who are these men?

Though it’s unclear who this “royal army” is, analysts are eyeing three southern Filipino militias. Militants from the southern Philippines have a history of crossing the narrow stretches of water to Borneo.

Some speculated at first that the groups’ appearance had something to do with deadly clashes in early February between the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and Abu Sayyaf, two Muslim armed groups from Mindanao in the southern part of the Philippines. Some local media reports suggested that at least some of the men who crossed the waters to Sabah are MNLF fighters.

The MNLF signed a peace deal with the Manila government in 1996, while the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a MNLF splinter, recently forged its own tentative peace agreement with the Philippine Government, with Malaysia providing diplomatic and mediation backing for the deal.

By far the smallest of the three groups, Abu Sayyaf opposes the agreements, as they grant autonomy to parts of Muslim Mindanao. Abu Sayyaf has said it wants an Islamic state in the southern Philippines.

And Abu Sayyaf has been known to make the same crossing to Malaysia undertaken by the self-described descendants of the Sultan of Sulu.

Abu Sayyaf has long been linked to Al Qaeda. It’s known for hosting the likes of Khalid Sheihk Mohammed, a central figure in the 9/11 attacks. And it is also known for taking hostage 20 people, most of them tourists, in 2000 in Malaysia.

These days, though, the group seems more like a criminal gang than a politically-motivated terror cell. It is currently holding, by some estimates, six foreign hostages. Exchanging hostages for ransom is a money-making tactic used by Abu Sayyaf in the past.

MNLF leaders spun a recent attack on Abu Sayyaf as an attempt to crush the group, end such hostage-taking, and thus widen the appeal of the impoverished southern Philippines to tourism.

If this group of self-described descendants of a sultan are linked to either the MILF or MNLF, Manila will hardly be happy that groups with which it signed peace deals crossed to Malaysia and faced-off with Malaysian soldiers. If there is an Abu Sayyaf link, it will further highlight the inability of US-trained and back Philippine soldiers to rein in the bloodthirsty kidnappers.

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