COTANGENT – By Daphne Cardillo
Of all the personalities I heard on air who dealt on the Sabah issue it was Atty. Harry Roque of the UP Law School who gave a mouthful. Talking from a historical and legal perspective, Harry Roque explained the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim to Sabah during a Sunday morning program over station dzRH.
The matter of the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim to Sabah (area: 73,613 sq. km.) again surfaced when a crisis broke at that Malaysian state a few weeks ago. Followers of Jamalul Kiram III, sultan of Sulu, crossed by sea to Sabah in the northern part of Borneo last 9 February 2013 to lay a stake in the territory as ancestral land of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Composing mostly of members of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu, the over 200 men and women and some of them armed, landed in the coastal town of Lahad Datu that led to a standoff with the Malaysian security forces. After days of failed negotiations, bloody confrontation eventually ensued between the Malaysian security forces and members of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo (old name of Sabah) led by the Sultan’s brother, Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram.
The crisis heightened when Malaysia conducted air strikes in Sabah – short of overkill – in order to wipe out Sulu and North Borneo’s Royal Security Forces. A number of people were reportedly killed. Undocumented arrests, torture and harassment were also reported. The issue of human rights violations erupted, prompting Harry Roque to protest that “in international mitigation UN member States must renounce war or violence in settling disputes.”
Going back to history, the Sultanate of Brunei and the Sultanate of Sulu preceded the formation of the States of Malaysia and the Philippines. At one point in time, Harry Roque narrated that the sultan of Brunei came from the Sultanate of Sulu and that the two royal families were related by blood. The sultan of Brunei ruled over North Borneo and the connection further strengthened when in 1704 the sultan of Brunei ceded North Borneo to the Sultanate of Sulu as a reward for helping quell a revolt. (Roque however mentioned that only half of Sabah was given to the Sultanate of Sulu.) From this period began the proprietary and sovereign rights of the Sultanate of Sulu over North Borneo. The sultan of Sulu by then was recognized as the ruler of North Borneo, entering into treaties with other countries.
In 1878, however, the sultan of Sulu leased North Borneo for 5,300 Mexican gold pieces yearly to an Austrian adventurer Baron de Overbeck, who later sold his rights to Alfred Dent who formed the British North Borneo Company. Subsequently, the British company continued paying the lease until its rights were transferred to the British Crown in 1946. Roque stated that the British company was merely a “private investor paying lease” and did not represent the British Crown for the latter to have sovereignty over the territory.
Truly, Britain “declared in 1883 that it assumed no sovereignty over Borneo” but probably seeing wealth in that mineral-rich land and by the imperialist’s greed and arrogance, made a protectorate of North Borneo in 1888. But by 1946, the British North Borneo Co. transferred its rights and obligations to the British Crown, and, clutching a firmer but illegal grip on the territory, Britain annexed North Borneo days after the Philippines gained its independence. So that by 1963, when Malaysia was federated, Britain turned over North Borneo to Malaysia as if it owned the area.
Sabah (or North Borneo), nonetheless, continues to be a disputed territory but the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim is not so farfetched as that of China’s claim to Panatag Shoal in the West Philippine Sea. Harry Roque asserted that the Sultanate of Sulu has a proprietary right over Sabah. The annual payment of lease by Malaysia – now in 5,300 ringgit (between Php70,000-Php77,000) – to the Sultanate of Sulu has continued up to this day proving that a business transaction is in effect. While in 1939, a decision from the high court of North Borneo known as the Macaskie Judgment named nine heirs of the then sultan of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, of which the present Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is descended.
Roque further pointed out that the Philippines has sovereignty over Sabah when in 1962, an assignment of rights from the Sultanate of Sulu to the Republic of the Philippines was passed in a House resolution wherein President Diosdado Macapagal filed a claim to Sabah. Roque declared that “with the assignment of rights, the Philippines must assert her claim to Sabah.”
Now we might observe that the Sabah case is an old history inter-lapping with a modern one, and that our claim must be dropped with the formation of the Philippines and Malaysia into sovereign States in a post-colonial era. But an unsettled issue makes for a continuing past. Like when Marcos organized a commando to invade Sabah that ended in the Jabidah Massacre in 1968. Harry Roque believed that Malaysia retaliated by supporting the Moro National Liberation Front. Indeed, give Marcos a civil war to contend with so he would keep his hands off Sabah. And then with this recent Framework Agreement between the Philippine Government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front where Malaysia ought not to broker as it has an interest in Sabah, and thus, compromising the peace process.
But before we deal with international disputes, what we badly need is to build internal strength so as to gain better bargaining power and not easily yield to outside pressure. We tend to get compromised and make wrong decisions that have far-ranging results. Looking at the recent territorial disputes – Panatag Shoal and Sabah – we don’t really need to be bullied by the US government. But simply by greedy neighbors.
March 19, 2013