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Sabah: Malaysia's 'Wild East'

KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia - Malaysia's remote eastern state of Sabah on Borneo island is in crisis after militant followers of a Philippine sultan invaded to stake the Islamic leader's historical claim to the area.

Following are key details on Sabah and the turmoil.

What is Sabah?

Sabah is a resource-rich Malaysian state about the size of Ireland on the northern tip of remote Borneo island.

It is marked by huge oil palm plantations, but also some of the world's best scuba diving and rainforest-clad mountain ridges that have earned it the nickname of Malaysia's "Wild East."

Along with Sarawak, it is one of two Malaysian states on the island, which also is shared with the tiny sultanate of Brunei and Indonesia's Kalimantan state.

The capital is Kota Kinabalu.

Who lives in Sabah?

Sabahans attest to a distinct identity from mainland Malaysia, which is dominated by Muslim ethnic Malays while Sabah's traditional population has been overwhelmingly made up of Bornean tribes, many of whom are now Christian.

The federal government in Kuala Lumpur has faced accusations for more than 3 decades that it illegally gave hundreds of thousands of Muslim foreigners citizenship in return for votes for the ruling coalition.

The government has denied the charge.

But Sabah's population has surged from some 600,000 citizens in 1970 to more than 3 million now -- more than double the national growth rate -- amid rising tensions between native Sabahans and foreign migrants.

The foreigners -- mainly poor economic migrants from the neighbouring southern Philippines and Indonesia -- are blamed by locals for crime, drug abuse, competition for jobs.

Sabah's government said recently 28% of the state's population were of foreign origin, Malaysian media reported.

What caused the current crisis?

The Sulu sultanate once controlled the Sulu islands in the Muslim southern Philippines and part of Borneo, including Sabah, but the advance of European colonialism eroded its powers.

It officially lost Sabah in 1878, via a loosely worded contract, to a British trading company that paved the way for it to eventually join the new nation of Malaysia in 1963.

While Sabah has prospered, the remote Sulu islands are among the poorest parts of the Philippines and a breeding ground for insurgents who dream of a Muslim homeland that is independent from the government in Manila.

Descendants of the Sulu sultans have continued to receive nominal rent from Malaysia of about $1,700 per year for Sabah under a deal inherited from European powers.

The intruders' exact demands remain unclear, but they have expressed resentment with the ongoing state of affairs.

Have similar incursions happened before?

Sabah has seen previous smaller-scale cross-border raids from Islamic militants and other bandits from the adjacent southern Philippines, which has suffered for decades from insurgency by Muslim militants.

In the biggest incident, a Philippine Islamic militant group seized 21 mostly Western holidaymakers as hostages at the Malaysian scuba diving resort of Sipadan off Sabah, taking them to the Philippine islands.

They were later ransomed.

Two Malaysians were kidnapped from a plantation in the area in November and were believed to have been taken to the southern Philippines.

What is at stake?

The incident risks stoking tensions between Sabahans and Filipinos.

Meanwhile, the exposure of lax security could erode support for the Malaysian ruling coalition in Sabah, an important battleground state in what are expected to be tightly fought elections due by June.

The Philippines also is watching closely for any impact on a framework agreement reached in October with the main Muslim separatist group in its south to end a decades-long insurgency that has killed more than 150,000 people.

The security crisis could also adversely impact tourism in Sabah, an increasing draw for tourists destined for its white-sand beaches, top-class scuba diving and remaining pockets of pristine rainforest. -