Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Sultan of Sulu's Claim on Sabah, Malaysia: an Issue That Should Be Resolved at the ICJ

late 19th century flag of Sulu
 The standoff in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia involving the a Filipino group led by Rajah Mudah Agmimmudin Kiram, has rekindled the issue about the claim of ownership of Sabah, North Borneo by the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu. The group which is estimated to be about 300 arrived there on February 11, 2013 by boats and is surrounded by the Malaysian security forces.

Sabah in North Borneo is a bone of contention between the Philippines and Malaysia with the latter also claiming that piece of territory by virtue of the heritage of the Sultanate of Sulu which is historically the owner of that territory.

Around 1675, the sultan of Brunei asked the Sultan of Sulu to help him quell a rebellion in his territory. The Sultan of Sulu sailed with 5 boats and together with the forces of his ally defeated the rebels. In gratitude, the Sultan of Brunei gave a portion of his territory which was Sabah in Northern Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu.

In 1878, a Sultan of Sulu at that time leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company with a nominal yearly compensation. Near the turn of the 19th century, after a series of Spanish raids in Sulu, the Sultan ceded the rest of his territories in the Philippines under the sovereignty of Spain.  

In 1962, in anticipation to the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, the Sultan of Sulu at that time signed an act of cession of his territory to the then President Diosdado Macapagal  so that the Philippines could press its claim on the rich territory of Sabah. However, in 1963 when the Federation of Malaysia was formed, the British of which Sabah was a protectorate included it in the Federation. Malaysia’s yearly rental of a measly RM 5,300 or 73,940 PHP is by and large an implicit recognition by that country of the Sultanate of Sulu’s ownership of Sabah.

Ferdinand Marcos, who succeeded President Macapagal, pressed further the claim with a more drastic approach. Recruits from Sulu were brought to a secluded island of Corregidor for military training and with the aim of incursion into Sabah. But before the training ended, they mutinied against their officers and NCOs. The Army Special Forces trainers dealt with the situation by gunning down the recruits. That incident is widely known as “Jabidah Massacre”.

One of the recruits was able to escape by swimming and floating on the waters of Manila Bay. He was later rescued by a fisherman. The incident was exposed by Senator Benigno Aquino Jr., and in no time at all the secret plan which went bad was revealed to the country and the world.

The massacre triggered the Muslim rebellion in the late 60’s until the 80’s and resulted to huge destruction to lives and properties in the island of Mindanao. The fact that the armed conflict of Mindanao came to the attention of the Muslim world complicated the matter. Malaysia, getting back at the Philippines for its aborted incursion, was believed to have given a safe haven and training ground in its territory to the Philippine Muslim rebels. Arms to the rebels were also believed to be channeled to the Southern Philippines via Malaysian territories.         

The rebellion was one of the biggest headaches of the Marcos administration so that he even sent his own wife Imelda Marcos to Libya to negotiate with Col. Muammar Khadafy to help resolve the conflict. Khadafy was said to be one of the greatest supporters of the rebels in Mindanao during the Muslim rebellion in the Philippines.

Succeeding Philippine presidents treated the claim on Sabah with caution considering that it involves delicate legal and political issues that can affect the security and stability of the nation as well as its relation with Malaysia. To deal with Muslim separatist problem, the Philippine government has been in constant dialogues with Muslim rebel factions like the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). At present, Malaysia brokered a peace deal between the Philippine government and the MILF.

The Philippine and Malaysian governments should make effort to end the standoff in Lahad Datu, Sabah peacefully because a battle between the group of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and the Malaysian security forces is not good for Sabah. It could also adversely affect bilateral relations of the two countries. An armed conflict in that region has a potential of spreading into parts of Mindanao in the Philippines where there are sizable Muslim population.        

Considering that the Philippines regards Sabah as part of its territory via the heritage of the Sultanate of Sulu, it should take up the cudgels to bring the issue before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to settle the territorial dispute with Malaysia once and for all. With that act the heirs of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu would not feel abandoned by the government of the Philippines on their age-old aspiration to take back Sabah.

The Philippine government however should first convince the Malaysian government to participate in the settlement of the case at the International Court of Justice. The ICJ has resolved territorial disputes of some countries like Malaysia and Indonesia. It could do the same with Sabah.