Thursday, March 14, 2013

Q&A on Sabah Issue

Photo from
To better understand the Sabah issue, this blog is publishing a paper writtern by Tomasito Villarin, currently serving as Office of Political Affairs undersecretary. Villarin is a graduate of University of Santo Tomas (UST) and Asian Institute of Management (AIM). He hails from Mindanao, where he served for several decades as a development worker.

Where is Sabah?

Sabah is located southwest of Tawi-Tawi, the last island province of the Philippines. It forms part of the larger island of Borneo. Sabah is one of the 13 member states of Malaysia, and is its easternmost state. It is located on the northern portion of the island of Borneo. It is the second largest state in Malaysia after Sarawak, which it borders on its southwest. It also shares a border with the province of East Kalimantan of Indonesia in the south. The capital of Sabah is Kota Kinabalu, formerly known as Jesselton.

Who are the people in Sabah?

Sabahans are composed of its indigenous peoples like Kadazan Disun, Murut (now Christianized), the Suluks or Tausugs, ethnic Chinese, and Indo-Malays. Based on official Malaysian government statistics, the population of Sabah is 3,117,405 as of the last census in 2010. It showed more than 400 percent increase from the census 1970 (from 651,304 in 1970 to 3,117,405 in 2010) and is the third most populous state in Malaysia after Selangor and Johor. Sabah has one of the highest population growth rates in Malaysia as a result of illegal immigrants from the Muslim-dominated southern provinces of Philippines by granting citizenship to illegal or legal immigrants. Non-Malaysian population (Indonesian, Filipinos) in Sabah is roughly estimated to be 27% of the island’s population.

Why is Sabah an integral part of Philippine history and politics?

Sabah is integral for three reasons: first, a historical and legal claim; second, peace process in Mindanao; and third, an important and strategic trade route. From 1675 to 1842, the Sultanate of Sulu became the sovereign ruler of North Borneo by a virtue of cession by the Sultan of Brunei whom the former helped in suppressing a rebellion. In 1878, after decades of war between Spain and other marauding European powers, the Sultan entered into a lease agreement with the North Borneo Company represented by Baron Overbeck and later Alfred Dent. The Sultanate has since terminated the lease and now wants compensation for Sabah from the Malaysian government. Second, Malaysia has taken a very active role as facilitator of the peace process between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front that resulted in the signing of the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro. Third, the Sabah-Zamboanga barter trade route is a flourishing trade route in the region. Over a million Filipinos depend on trading with Sabah as well as employment in the island’s banana, sugar, oil palm, cassava plantations and Kota Kinabalu’s commercial districts.  

What is the Sultanate of Sulu? Who are the heirs of the Sultanante? 

The Sultunate of Sulu was established among the Suluks or Tausug sometime in 1450 with the arrival of Abu Bak’r, an Arabian missionary, the first ruler to adopt the title Sultan based on the concept of the Arab Caliphate. The descendants of the Sultanate are traceable based on the Tarsilas or salsilas, ‘genealogies’ that traced the lineage of the sultanates.

From 1675 to 1842, the Sultanate of Sulu became a recognized state power in the region encompassing North Borneo, Sulu archipelago, and the present-day Zamboanga peninsula.

From 1842 to 1899 saw the decline of the Sultanate with European powers like the British, Dutch, Germans, and Spaniards dominating the region.

With the death of Sultan Badarudin II, the last unified Sultan, in 1884, competing claims to the Sultanate were made.

In 1894, the conquering Spaniards recognized Amirul Kiram now Sultan Jamalul Kiram II as the legitimate sultan. Amirul Kiram died in 1939. He was briefly succeeded by his brother, Sultan Muwallil Wasit, who died before he was crowned sultan.

When Esmail Kiram I did not assume the sultanate, Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandao, a niece, made her husband, Datu Ombra Amilbangsa as Sultan Amirul Ombra Amilbangsa.

Other clan members however contested the throne with Datu Tambuyong proclaimed Sultan Jainal Aberin with Datu Buyungan, the husband of Tarhata Kiram as raja muda or crown prince.

In 1957, the son of Datu Ombra Amilbangsa or the Raja Muda, becoming sultan with the name Sultan Esmail Kiram I. He declared the termination of the lease agreement with the British North Borneo Company. It is noted that as early as 1939, in a civil suit decided by the High Court of the State of North Borneo, its Chief Justice C.F.C. Mackaskie identified nine (9) heirs of the Sultanate who are legally entitled payment for North Borneo or Sabah.

 Is Sabah part of the Bangsamoro homeland?

By definition, the term ‘bangsa’ means homeland and “Moro” referring to all inhabitants of Mindanao prior to conquest or by the turn of the 19th century. But usage of such term practically refers to the 13 Islamized ethnolinguistic groups which make up southern Mindanao – Maranaos, Maguindanaos, Tausugs, Samal, Yakan, Sangil, Badjao, Kolibugan, Jama Mapun, Iranon, Palawanon, Kalagan, and Molbog (Che Man, 1990).

When the Moro National Liberation Front was organized in 1972, Sabah was not referred to as part of the Bangsamoro and did not form part of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. In the recently signed Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the Bangsamoro territory does not include Sabah. However, by tradition the MNLF that was organized largely by the Tausugs under Misuari looks at Sabah as part of their ancestral homeland. The Kirams also are part of the MNLF.

Perhaps in deference to Malaysia having supported both the MNLF in the past and now the MILF, both separatist movements have not weighed on making Sabah an issue with Malaysia. But MNLF under Misuari is now making it a part of their claim-making.

How did the Philippine government become a claimant of Sabah?

In 1957, Sultan Esmail Kiram declared the termination of the 1878 Overbeck and Dent lease agreement. Attorneys of the heirs of Sultan pursued the claim through the Philippine government after the heirs of the Sultan ceded sovereignty rights over North Borneo or Sabah to the Philippine government in April 24, 1962 without prejudice to proprietary rights that the heirs may have over Sabah.  British government asserts that there is no dispute on sovereignty and ownership of Sabah.

The Philippine government then brought its claim to the UN General Assembly.  The British agreed to hold talks in the spirit of Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), forerunner of the ASEAN that was organized in 1968. The Philippines adhered to the principle of self-determination to be conducted through a referendum under the auspices of the UN. However, the British government created its own Cobbold Commission that reported that majority of the people in North Borneo wishes to join the Federation of Malaysia. Philippines proposed to Britain to submit the issue over the claim to the International Court of Justice. Britain replied that with the Malaysia, Philippines Indonesia (MAPHILINDO) alliance, it can’t speak for other countries.

A UN Secretary General Report under Lawrence Michelmore submitted that 100 percent of the population of North Borneo and 75 percent of Sarawak supported the formation of the Malaysian Federation. While the report was questioned, this did not prevent the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. Indonesia and the Philippines initially did not recognize the new country, Malaysia.

In 1968, Sultan of Sulu entered into a secret agreement with then President Marcos relinquishing to Marcos authority to pursue proprietary rights claim over Sabah.  A law delineating Philippine territory recognized its future claim over Sabah was enacted under RA 5446 signed by Marcos. However, the Philippine claim was rejected by Malaysia who in turn was supported by the British and the United States.

However, a secret plan by Marcos to invade Sabah under Operation Merdeka was exposed.  The plan involved training Tausugs in Corregidor who were later massacred by their officers. This became the infamous Jabidah massacre exposed by then Senator Ninoy Aquino. This led to a serious rift in Philippine-Malaysia relations but the relations normalized in 1969.

In 1972, Marcos declared martial law and had a new Constitution that recognizes historic right or legal titles over territories belonging to the Philippines. In 1974, Sultan Esmail Kiram died and in his place Mahakuttah Kiram becomes Sultan until his death in 1986. In 1977, Marcos verbally dropped the claim over Sabah and was affirmed by Vice President Arturo Tolentino in an ASEAN Foreign Ministers Conference in 1980. However, Malaysian PM Mahathir insisted that the Philippines formally drop the claim and Malaysia will settle proprietary claims with the Sultan.

In 1986, the Constitutional Commission omitted the word ‘historic right or legal titles’ in the definition of territory without prejudice to pursuing the Sabah claim. Then President Cory Aquino instructed Foreign Affairs Secretary Raul Manglapus to “organize the Sultan’s heirs and clans to arrive into a common position for negotiations with Malaysia.”  While majority of the heirs agreed, talks bogged down when the present sultan Jamalul Kiram III dissented.

Under President Fidel Ramos, he again tried to unite the heirs of the Sultanate under a proposed Sulu-Sabah Development Corporation and the creation of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asian Growth Area. This initiative did not prosper as various clan members were pursuing individually their proprietary claims with Malaysia.

In January 2001, Sultan Esmail Kiram II wrote Malaysia through President Macapagal-Arroyo to raise the lease rental to $855-M annually.  Malaysia reportedly offered to ‘buy’ Sabah for $800-M. In 2002, President Macapagal-Arroyo met with Sultan Jamalul Kiram and forwarded his letter to Malaysia.

A Joint Executive Legislative Advisory Council on Sabah was reconstituted. However, massive deportation of Filipinos from Sabah led to the revival of the claim over Sabah by Filipino lawmakers.  In 2004, the advisory council was abolished and all issues on Sabah claim is now to be handled by the Department of Foreign Affairs that has a North Borneo unit handling the claim. In 2006, the MNLF backed another Sultan claimant, Mohammad Fuad Abdullah Kiram 1. In 2007, Jamalul Kiram III ran unsuccessfully as Senator of the Philippines under President GMA.

In 2009, Congress passed RA 9522 that amended baselines of the Philippines under RA 5446 that removes mention of Sabah or North Borneo. In 2011, the Supreme Court upheld RA 9522 but said that the country’s claim over Sabah is retained and can be pursued.

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