Unlike China, which claims to have indisputable sovereignty over the islands in the South China Sea and its adjacent waters, even if it is not clearly theirs, basing from the exclusive economic zone of 200 nautical miles set by UNCLOS, here we are, on the other hand, being charged for allegedly disregarding a claim on Sabah, which is known to belong legitimately to the country as it has been ceded to the Philippine government by the Sultanate of Sulu a long time ago.
The consequence of this is what is making news these days when some 300 armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, led by led by his brother, Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, daringly landed on the seaside village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah after crossing the sea from Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province in the Sulu Archipelago, to press their claim over the island.
This, they say, after the Philippine government, since the time of President Diosdado Macapagal to the present administration of President Benigno Aquino, has shown apathy towards the territorial claim.
A standoff has ensued as Malaysia police and army officials have formed a tight security ring around the village, with navy boats patrolling nearby islands and insisting that the rebels return to the Philippines.
But Kiram’s followers are resolute in staying, saying the place is their home considering the sultanate owns Sabah by rights of sovereignty.
How this standoff will end nobody knows yet, as officials from the Philippines and Malaysia are continuously talking to end the impasse.
What is the Sabah controversy really all about and why has it resurfaced now?
Perhaps we can start by describing that based on historical records, the Sultanate of Sulu used to be an Islamic Tausug state that ruled over many of the islands of the Sulu Sea and several places in northern Borneo.
Long before North Borneo became Sabah and formed part of the Malaysian federation in 1963, it was under the Sultanate of Brunei, which in 1658 the sultan of Brunei ceded that part of Borneo to the Sultanate of Sulu as a prize for helping the former defeat an uprising in his kingdom. From then on, it is said that the sultan of Sulu exercised sovereignty over North Borneo, which is bordered by Sarawak (Malaysia) on its southwestern side, and Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) to the south.
Sometime later, the sultan of Sulu leased the land to the British North Borneo Company with the latter agreeing, among other things, to pay annual rental for the use of the territory.
When the Malaysian federation was established in 1963, and the British company ceased to exist, the Malaysians continued paying the annual rental to the Sultanate of Sulu, but not before claiming Sabah, this time, as part of their own territory.
In fact the inclusion of Sabah as part of Malaysia is the reason why the Philippine government, during the time of President Diosdado Macapagal, broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia as the claim could never prosper that way.
It did not help that when Macapagal claimed that the territory was “ceded” to the Philippine government by the Sultanate of Sulu, the people in Sabah opted in a UN-supervised referendum to join Malaysia.
The claim got derailed once more, and in fact worsened the situation between the two countries, when then President Ferdinand Marcos was discovered training secretly a group of Muslim Filipinos in Corregidor for possible intrusion in Sabah to pave the way to an armed secession of Sabah from Malaysia. This was later called the “Jabidah Massacre”, when the trained recruits mutinied upon learning of the plan and were killed except for one who survived to tell the tale.
It is even said that this macabre episode in the history of our claim on Sabah gave the Malaysians enough reason to aid the Filipino Muslim separatists against the Philippine government which went on for years under different administration.
Yet, despite all these misunderstandings, the Malaysian government never stopped paying the Sultanate of Sulu the annual rental due them. But, at the same time undocumented Filipinos in Sabah were being deported.
While the nation’s claim on Sabah has been perceived by the Sultanate of Sulu to have been relegated to the back burner, a larger and more important peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was being crafted by the Aquino administration with the help of the Malaysian government for the purpose of bringing cessation of hostilities in Mindanao.
Thus, the painful birth of the 2012 Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF, including the creation of a transition commission tasked to draft the proposed Bangsamoro basic law that will be submitted to Congress for enactment. Henceforth, it will replace the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).
The creation of Bangsamoro, which is crucial in the attainment of lasting peace and economic development in the region, seem to not sit well with the Sultanate of Sulu and obviously to some aggrieved party that wants to have a stake in the now relatively peaceful region of the country.
There is no doubt that the Sabah issue is a contentious issue, but let us not allow it to derail the existing peace accord in Mindanao with the MILF for it will only be a huge setback for the country. For sure the country’s legitimate claim on Sabah will not be forgotten.
What is important is maintaining our good relations with Malaysia and the proper timing.
Once the nature, structure, and powers of the political entity called the Bangsamoro is working beneficially for Mindanao, then perhaps it could spearhead in resolving the Sabah claim, with the full support of the Philippine government, but not before some entities are seen trying to destroy the foundation of peace built on trust and respect that has been established to help develop Mindanao.