The head of the Sultanate of Sulu, HM Jamalul Kiram III, sent an armed group to Sabah to reclaim its supposed ancestral rights to the territory. The land had allegedly been granted to his family over two centuries ago as compensation for a job done. The Sultanate leased the area to two European adventurers who in turn assigned it to a private enterprise, the British North Borneo Company. As proof, the Sultan reportedly receives a modest annual rent from Malaysia. The latter believes Sabah was “ceded” to it which was bolstered when in 1963 its residents voted to join the Malaysian Federation.
That year the Sulu Sultanate conveyed its alleged sovereignty over Sabah to the Philippine Government under Pres. Diosdado Macapagal. The Philippines has filed claim on the area with the International Court of Justice albeit with lessening degrees of enthusiasm.
The confrontation between the Sultan and Malaysian forces has resulted in multiple deaths. President Aquino had called for the withdrawal of the former with offers to repatriate them.
Some opposition politicians have accused the President of failing to support Filipinos in distress, even calling for his impeachment.
There are several issues involved: How valid is the Sultan’s claim for return of his land? Two, what is the obligation of the Philippine Government to support the initiative? Is this a private claim of a family or a sovereign claim of the country? If awarded, does the property accrue to the Sultan or the Philippines? Three, is armed intervention by either the Sultan or the Philippines the proper recourse? Four, what are the rights of the people of Sabah, do they have a say in the dispute?
It is not for us to comment on the validity of the Sultan’s claim.
The Philippines has filed for restitution of Sabah. It has presumably done so on the Filipinos’ behalf and not that of the Sultanate. Does the Sultan agree that Sabah is ours and not his as some of his statements seem to imply? If yes to the former, that he unilaterally sent his followers to get the job done is arguably patriotic, akin to a citizens’ arrest. It is, unfortunately, also an arguably illegal vigilante act since no person, however noble, is allowed to take the law into his hands.
If the Sultan believes this is his private matter, as a Filipino he is entitled to ask for the Government to make representations with Malaysia. He has apparently done so over the years but the DFA “misplaced” his letters.
The Government has the obligation to assist our countrymen in disputes involving foreign jurisdictions. If we did this for the three drug mules convicted by China, more so should we do so for the Sultan. However, the Sultan cannot ask the Philippines to go to war especially if this is a private dispute between him and Malaysia.
In short the Sultan needs to clarify his actions. In sending his Royal Army to Sabah, did he act on behalf of all Filipinos or for his family? If the former, despite his best intentions, he has arguably crossed the law. The decision to “militarily repossess” Sabah was not his to make. Ours might be a better place but there would be chaos if we all acted as we pleased.
If a private commercial dispute, the Sultan can rightly be aggrieved at the perceived or actual failure of this and previous Governments to help him. However he cannot compel the nation to go beyond itself under international law.
Lastly there is the matter of Sabah’s people right to self- determination. This an age old issue whether in Palestine, in the Balkans or in South Sudan? What are the rights of residents of a disputed territory and how will this be exercised?
Sabah is complicated. What does not help is for grandstanding politicians to undermine the President with accusations of treason, incompetence or neglect. For one, this did not all happen under the watch of PNoy, it has been there since the 1950’s. Such finger pointing weakens our image and position in the eyes of the world in general and Malaysia in particular. We should rally behind our leader in moments of crisis.
What we also do not need is a Congressional investigation which will encourage noisy lawmakers to pontificate while washing our dirty linen in public.
The challenge for this Administration is to balance the country’s recorded claim over Sabah with the reality, emotion and politics of nationalism. The reality is possession is 95% of the law and right now Malaysia possesses Sabah. The Government should pursue our legal claim while better communicating its position with clarity, wisdom and empathy. It must keep its cool.
Even by his admission, the deaths in Sabah were to be expected once the Sultan embarked on his mission. The tragedy is they will have served no purpose and that ultimately must lay on somebody’s conscience.