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The Sabah standoff
Publication Date : 21-02-2013
There is more to the ongoing standoff between Malaysian forces and some 300 armed men holed up in a coastal village in Sabah than meets the eye. The latter are Filipino nationals, though they identify themselves as members of the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. They have announced that they sailed to Sabah to reclaim their rightful homeland. Heaven forbid that any harm should befall them. For, that will play right into the hands of those who, for some reason or other, wish to derail the current peace effort in Mindanao and foment a rift between Malaysia and the Philippines.
The relations between the two countries have significantly improved after Malaysia began hosting the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Malaysia has a clear interest in the political stabilisation of neighbouring Muslim Mindanao. In the past, Muslim rebels routinely sought sanctuary in Malaysian territory, and their presence there not only strained relations with the Philippines but also posed the danger of locally spreading a politicised Islam. Of course, beyond all this, the Malaysian investment in goodwill, properly acknowledged as a Filipino debt of gratitude, serves to undercut any move to activate a long-standing irritant in the relations of the two countries.
The Sultan’s heirs have been pressing the Philippine government to actively pursue its sovereign claim to Sabah. Keeping the issue alive will greatly bolster their demand to be justly compensated as the rightful private owners of the territory. The Philippine claim is solely anchored on the property rights asserted by the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu. This claim was formally advanced by President Diosdado Macapagal in 1962. That was the year before the British formally relinquished their colonial hold on Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and the straits settlements (including Singapore), paving the way for the establishment of Malaysia as an independent state. Singapore subsequently left the Malaysian federation.
“North Borneo,” writes the historian Onofre D. Corpuz, “was crucial to the new Malaysia; without it, the latter would have an overriding Chinese majority in its population, because Singapore was to be part of Malaysia. The United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan had interests in the new state based on global strategic considerations. The claim would be pursued, if at all, in diplomatic isolation. The future of the Philippine claim, into the 1980s, was not bright.” Sure enough, the keen desire of the Philippine government to forge strong regional ties with its major Southeast Asian neighbours thereafter consigned the issue to the margins of Philippine foreign policy.
It has been a long time since the Sabah claim has been openly discussed in the media or, even less, officially taken up by any administration. Yet, no Philippine president has dared to categorically renounce the country’s claim to this territory. The young generation of Filipinos, who are unaware of the historic claim of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, may thus be forgiven if they perceive the group of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III as no different from those syndicates who now and then invade expensive real estate in Metro Manila waving fictitious royal titles. But, this particular claim is by no means founded on fantasy.
North Borneo was acquired by the Sultanate of Sulu sometime in the 17th century as a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, in appreciation for the former’s help in successfully quelling a local rebellion against the latter’s rule. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu agreed to lease the property to a British company. Malaysia argues that in 1885, Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the whole of Borneo, in exchange for British recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the entire Sulu archipelago. Its lawyers contend, moreover, that the Sultanate of Sulu ended in 1936 following the death of the last Sultan.
Yet, since its formation in 1963, the Malaysian state has thought it proper to hand over every year to the lawyers of the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu a check for 5,300 Malaysian ringgit (about 70,000 pesos or US$1,700 at the current exchange rate). Before that, except for the period between 1936 and 1950, the payment was made by the British North Borneo Co., in accordance with the terms of a lease agreement between the British company and the heirs of the Sultan. Today, Malaysia calls the token payment “cession,” meaning payment made in exchange for the ceding of property rights. The Sultan’s descendants, however, continue to refer to it as “rent,” for obvious reasons. Regardless, the amount is ridiculous. The territory in question covers approximately 30,000 square miles.
The Sultan’s heirs have a pending petition with the United Nations for the return of Sabah to the family. This may be a way of compelling Malaysia to pay a substantially higher rent, or an offer to quit all claims in exchange for a huge payment. But, it is also possible that Malaysia intends to stop paying altogether in order to put to rest any doubt about Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah. Unfortunately, the UN has not acted on the petition.
The “invasion” led by the brother of the current Sultan is clearly an attempt to shove the issue into the faces of the two governments, neither of which relishes being dictated upon by the heirs of an archaic sultanate. Still, both governments must realise that they have an interest in ending this standoff without firing a single shot. A messy end to this impasse could stoke ethnic resentments and needlessly inflame nationalist sentiments.