Calling a spade
Business World, 20 February 2013


How can Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, 33rd Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo, expect Malaysia to take him seriously, when his own country doesn’t? Let’s face it, until the so-called “Sabah stand-off” occurred, the Sultanate of Sulu certainly did not form any part of the public’s consciousness — with myself being part of that public. But more importantly, he has been ignored — at least by President Aquino, and before him, President Arroyo, neither of whom bothered to reply to his earnest letters. Tingting Cojuangco sent me copies of these letters — one sent in April 2009, and the other sent in October 2012.

And what were in those letters? Essentially, a nutshell history of the Sultanate of Sulu and its claim to Sabah; a reminder that the armed conflict in Mindanao was started with the blessings of Malaysia, because the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)’s “original whose original fighters were reportedly trained in a secret camp on Pangkor Island, Malaysia”; and demand/claim/plea/protest/request that any peace talks should include the mandatory participation of the Sultanate in the negotiations.

Which is probably why Sultan Kiram had to take stronger measures to get the public and the government’s attention. In any case, the Sultanate is now in the public’s and my mind, and I have spent some time and effort to try to be a little more current on what it is all about. And I must say, the Sultan has a lot of my sympathy.

Let me share with the busy Reader some interesting facts (as gathered by the GMA News Research team and from Google):

First, the founding of the Sultanate precedes Spain’s discovery of the Philippines by 64 years (1457 vs. 1521). And there is a record of the names and reigns of the royal family since then. The problem is that there are currently other claimants/pretenders (complete with coronations) to the throne, although Jamalul is the eldest one, and is a direct descendant of the original Kiram I who ascended to the throne in 1823.

Then there is the undeniable fact that North Borneo, now known as Sabah — and including the island of Palawan — was ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in July 1658 (reiterated in 1675) by the Sultan of Brunei, in “grateful compensation” for the Sulu Sultan’s leading an armed force to help quell a ten-year rebellion in Brunei.

Two hundred years later, the reigning Sultan leased North Borneo to a British company (not connected to the British government) for 5,000 Malaysian dollars a year in perpetuity. The British authorities claim that it was not a lease — that it was a grant, the area being ceded (except it has to be difficult for them to explain why, if it was ceded or granted, annual payments were required. The payments, by the way are still being made annually up to this time.

The situation then gets complicated legally, with the British government first declaring in 1883 that it assumed no sovereignty over Borneo, and then in 1888 establishing a protectorate over North Borneo, and finally in 1946 (10 days after Philippine independence) annexing North Borneo as part of the British Dominions. In between, Spain had forced the Sultan of Sulu accept its sovereignty over “Jolo and its dependencies” and then turned around in 1885 and ceded North Borneo to Great Britain — the so-called “Madrid Protocol.”

It is noteworthy that in 1906 and 1920, the United States “formally reminded Great Britain that Sabah did not belong to them and was still part of the Sultanate of Sulu (basis: North Borneo was never a dependency of Jolo). And in 1915 (this from Jovito Salonga), Governor Frank Carpenter essentially recognized that North Borneo was owned by the Sultanate of Sulu and was merely leased to the British North Borneo company.

It should also be noted that when the British annexed North Borneo in 1946, it was not a Filipino or the Philippine government that squawked, but rather an American (this from Salonga again): in 1947, former Governor General Francis Harrison, who was made special adviser to the Philippine government on foreign affairs, considered what the British government did an act of political aggression because it was done “unilaterally and without special notice to the Sultanate of Sulu nor consideration of their legal rights.”

In 1957, according to Salonga, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu issued a proclamation declaring the termination of the lease contract effective Jan. 22, 1958, which declaration was served on the British government. Since then the heirs have made claims upon the British government for the return of the territory. All on deaf ears.

It is to President Diosdado Macapagal’s credit that he pursued the issue, and a Manila Accord was signed by him, Prime Minister Tungku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia and President Sukarno of Indonesia, where all pledged to resolve the Sabah issue through peaceful and diplomatic means, with no prejudice to the Sultan of Sulu’s claim to North Borneo.

And then came Operation Merdeka (under Marcos), also known as the Jabidah massacre, which obviously strained (actually, broke) relations between the Philippines and Malaysia — which is probably why Malaysia, at least according to Sultan Kiram III, “sponsored and created the Moro National Liberation Front in its own soil in 1968.”

Does the Sultanate of Sulu have a legitimate claim to Sabah? Jovito Salonga seemed to think so. A claim that goes back generations, with an estimated 30% of the population of Sabah of Filipino origin. Up to the ’60s, it was a shopping area for Filipinos, reachable by kumpit. I am told that during low tide, wild boar could be seen crossing between one side and the other.

There was a referendum in 1963 under the auspices of the United Nations — and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of Malaysia rather than the Philippines. But that cannot possibly come as a surprise. Or as proof positive that the Sultanate of Sulu has no rights.

But the Malaysian government said the Sultan’s position as a “non-issue.” And the Philippine government dismisses it as a “dormant claim.” Except now, of course it is fully awake.

The younger brother of the Sultan is in Sabah, taking a stand about his “home.” Good for him.

Meanwhile, what Jovito Salonga wrote in 1962 seems just as valid today: “There is something pathetic in the fact that it took an American official, the former Governor General Francis Harrison… called the… by its proper name — ‘an act of political aggression…”

“It would seem equally pathetic that some homegrown nationalists have counseled the government to pursue a policy of fear and inaction.” Bad for us.