COMMENT: A New Theory On Line

Last of 3 parts: Quo Vadis

GENERAL SANTOS CITY (MindaNews/6 July)–Where is the Philippine Sabah claim headed for? Quo vadis? While the Philippines seems no longer keen in pursuing the claim, the heirs of Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam, the original lessor, have renewed their claim and recently urged President Aquino to revive the Philippine claim. But reviving the Philippine claim is not as simple as the sultan’s heirs seem to believe. As already shown, there are complicating circumstances – and still more of their own making which they apparently do not see or want to.

The Clamors

“A group over the weekend called on President Benigno Aquino III to update the ‘Moro people’ on the Philippine claim over Sabah.” (The Manila Times, June 11, 2012: Govt urged to reassert Sabah claim) This was re-published in Luwaran (June 13), the official online publication of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

The group was led by Lanao Sultan Firduasi Abbas. The report did not name who were in Abbas’ group that saw the President.  Abbas is not an heir of the Sulu Sultan. Reportedly, he was speaking for the “Moro people”.

There are published efforts of Sultan Esmail Dalus Kiram II – claiming to be the reigning Sultan of Sulu (See: “Note” further below) — to revive the campaign to reclaim Sabah as shown in two articles, one in InterAksyon, October 15, 2011 (Sultan of Sulu revives claim over Sabah ) and in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, February 1, 2009 (Sulu sultan asserts rights over Sabah). There should be more.

In the July 27, 2008 issue of the Philippine Daily Inquirer (Sabah claim far from being resolved), Ulka Ulama, identified as “legal counsel for the past 40 years” of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, revealed that much of the claim was focused on the increase of the “rental”.

Vital Qestion

As we sift through the published clamors of the Sultan of Sulu and the other advocates for the revival of the Sabah claim, one question arises: What really is the “Sabah claim” between the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and the Philippine Government? This is most vital. 

From statements of Kiram II and his top advisers Almarim Tillah and Leasin Omar Basa and his Sultanate Secretary General Abraham Idjirani in the InterAksyon article:

Idjirani: The special authority that the Sultanate granted the Philippine government during the Diosdado Macapagal presidency was revoked in 1989 based on “the 1962 document … between the Macapagal government and the sultanate” providing “that should the Republic fail to recover North Borneo … this transfer document shall ipso fact become null and void”. This matter must first be settled. “The Philippine government cannot prosecute without first seeking a special power from the Sultanate of Sulu.”

Basa: Like Idjirani, he said the Philippine government and the Sultanate first “reconcile their positions” — the Philippines as representative of the Sultanate “actively … pushing the claim in the proper international venues, notably the International Court of Justice alongside a vigorous diplomatic campaign”.

Point: The Philippine government is just the agent of the Sultanate. It no longer has the “authority” to pursue the claim. If true, why blame it for not doing so?

Tillah: The Sultanate has not closed the doors completely on the Philippine government despite the decades of official indifference. As “citizens of this country, we are willing to transfer to the Philippine government the sovereignty rights while retaining proprietary rights.” Meaning, Sabah remains the property of the Sultanate under the protection of the Philippine government.

Point: This means the Philippines does not yet have sovereignty rights over Sabah. If true, what is its legal basis in elevating the dispute to the International Court of Justice?

In the Philippine Daily Inquirer article, the Sulu Sultanate apparently has a functioning government as seen in its royal officials of cabinet rank. It declared “it would assert its property rights over Sabah” without touching the “complicated” sovereignty issue. This means it will leave that issue to the Philippine government.

Prime Interest

The Inquirer article (February1, 2009) referred to above relates some of Kiram II’s claims in his “speech at the Manila Pavilion Hotel in Manila” declaring the Sultanate “would assert its property rights over Sabah … regardless of the unresolved territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia”.

The Sultan said: “I am getting old and the wait is too long and so I decided to sign a development contract with some legitimate foreign companies to develop our property (Sabah).” Copies of the contract have been sent to the prime minister of Malaysia to inform him “that we mean to exercise our rights as stipulated by the British High Court of Borneo (in 1939)”.

He was referring to the Makaskie Dictum or Decision. How seriously Malaysia had taken him was beside the point — the prime interest revealed in his speech: economic gains.

To underscore his seriousness, the Sultan also revealed: “The Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo (Sabah) has decided to tap quasi-government security and peacekeeping agencies to foil any attempt of terrorist and kidnap groups to use the sultanate regions in their continued kidnap for ransom activities.”

During the same event, Abdula Kiram, the Sultan’s son and royal commerce secretary, “lamented the measly $1,000 Malaysia pays in annual rent for Sabah compared to the $10-12 billion annual income the territory generates for the Malaysian government”.  This was why “we will exercise ownership regardless of which government owns [Sabah]” – referring to the Philippines-Malaysia sovereignty dispute.

The same song Ulama sang in the July 27, 2008 Inquirer article. “The heirs,” he said, “have long been seeking an increase in the annual rental from the Malaysia government. Even the Philippine government has ignored their request for help in resolving the matter.”  The Sultan referred to in this report was Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdullah Kiram I (See: Note below).

As the Sultanate’s legal counsel, Ulama said he wrote the Arroyo government through the Department of Foreign Affairs in 2003. After follow-ups, including a direct appeal to President Arroyo, he received a reply asking for supporting documents on June 23, 2008.

[NOTE: In the InterAksyon and the 2009 Inquirer articles above, Sultan Esmail Dalus Kiram II is the 34th and the reigning sultan of Sulu and Sabah. In the 2008 Inquirer report, Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdullah Kiram I is the 35th and the reigning sultan of Sulu and Sabah. Actually, there are more than two – in Sabah, one installed himself as Sulu Sultan Rodinhood Julaspi Kiram II — claiming as the “reigning sultan.” This is one complication in the Sabah claim.

Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdullan Kiram I is the true sultan, says, website of the Hashemite Sultan of Sulu and Sabah. He is the last son of Sultan Esmail E. Kiram I, the 33rd Sultan (1947-1973) – the last heir of Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam, the 29th Sultan (1862-1881), who leased Sabah in 1878 – and the brother of Sultan Mahakatula Abdula Kiram, the 34th Sultan (1974-1986). On January 30, 2009, he joined, upon invitation by President Arroyo, in welcoming Brunei Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah.

Sultan Esmail Dalus Kiram the II was among the 21 claimants to the throne of the Sultan of Sulu and Sabah in a list “Beware of Fake Sultans” posted in the Hashemite website

In relation to the Sabah question, they may be different singers but they sing similar tunes.

Free, Independent Sabah

In an undated message posted in, official website of the Hashemite Sulu Sultanate, the reigning Sultan Muhammad Fuad Abdulah Kiram I issued an appeal for a “Free and Independent Sabah”. How seriously this was taken – is being taken and will be taken – is beside the point that it illustrates the frenzy in the “heirs’ clamors”.

The message — “To our dearly beloved good people of Sabah and descendants of great and brave Tausug warriors living in Sabah and to the members of the Sabah Pro-Independence Movement who made representations and met our Royal Cabinet Ministers earlier on” traces historically how North Borneo became part of the Sulu Sultanate and how illegally it was federated with Malaysia.

The Sultan proclaimed: We, … and along with our Royal Family and our Royal Cabinet, support A FREE AND INDEPENDENT SABAH under a Constitutional/ Parliamentary Monarchy whereby Members of Sabah Parliament are elected by the people of Sabah on a 4-year period provided, howsoever, that a free and independent Sabah will be under our reign and our successors according to law of succession as the Reigning Sultan of Sabah.”

He proposed an intricate system of government to administer the political, economic and social affairs of the “free and independent Sabah” under the sovereignty of the Sultan of Sulu.

This message and the clamors of the other heirs of the Sultan of Sulu – real or fake — cannot be conveniently waved off. It reveals how disarrayed the Sabah claim is.

Internal Movements

The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and the Philippine government cannot ignore internal movements in Sabah that complicate the Sabah question – one, the opposition to the Philippine Sabah claim which is considered baseless; the other, the desire to separate from Malaysia. These are signs of a growing national consciousness.

To Sabahan political leaders and the academe, the Philippine claim on Sabah is baseless, a non-issue. By documentary and historical evidence, Sabah is owned by Malaysia. But the claim has become a security problem because agitators identified as “Filipinos” are using it to stir up troubles. The Philippines is accused of perpetuating its claim by not establishing a consulate in Kota Kinabalu.

Sabah Chief Prime Minister Datuk Musa Aman said this: The “Sabah Claim” (a) is an internal matter of the Philippines. (b) The case has never been formally claimed in bilateral (Malaysian-Philippines) forum. (3) Malaysia has never entertained this “non-issue” and the United Nations recognizes that Sabah is part of Malaysia. (, May 11, 2012: The Philippines’s revival of the “Sabah claim”, Sabah issue still with them!) 

Sabahans believe that Sabah belongs to Malaysia; but Sabah is for the Sabahans. Many accuse the British of illegally annexing Sabah to the Federation of Malaysia. While Sabah was federated through referendums, they question the validity of these since the Sabahans were not represented in the conduct of these referendums. There is a growing movement for the independence of Sabah from Malaysia.

That call of the Sultan of Sulu for a “Free and Independent Sabah” – a Sabah free and independent from Malaysia under the sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu – must have insulted the Sabahans. They consider treason the acts of agitators in Sabah “claiming Sabah as belonging to another country”.

Disturbing Questions

Forty years after filing its Sabah claim, the Philippine government has cooled off. But it has not dropped the claim. While it maintains good diplomatic relations with Malaysia, it has not established a consulate in Kota Kinabalu, the Sabah capital. The Sabahans are furious; to them, this is a sign their state will continue to be disputed – claimed by a foreign country.

The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu are desperate. While they say they will protect and pursue their rights on their own, they are also urging the Aquino III government to revive the Sabah claim. But in their public statements, they portray the Philippine government as just the representative or agent of the Sultanate. And worse, the authority to represent was revoked in 1989 – if true, in response to President Corazon C. Aquino’s proposal to the Congress to drop the Sabah claim.

On the principle that one cannot give what he does not own, the Philippines maintains that as Sabah was just leased by Overbeck’s company, the company cannot cede it to the British Crown and the British cannot cede it to Malaysia.

But the same principle can be turned against the Philippines. Spain ceded the Philippines to the United States by the 1898 Treaty of Paris. The territory ceded included Sulu but not North Borneo  (Sabah). So the Philippines that the U.S. granted independence in1946 did not include Sabah. The Philippines cannot claim what it did not own. This, in essence, did Dr. Hiew King Cheu, member of the Kota Kinabalu Parliament, argue in 2009.

In 2001, Malaysia under Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad agreed, on the request of President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to host and facilitate the peace negotiations between the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. The arrangement – the diplomatic accommodation – is continuing. This must have some implications on the Sabah claim. Whatever, Sultan Fiduasi Abbas implied this in his series of questions to the Aquino III government, as reported in The Manila Times and Luwaran last month.

Will President Aquino revive the Philippine Sabah claim now? If he will, what is the new theory on line on which to anchor the claim?

(“Comment” is Mr. Patricio P. Diaz’ column for MindaViews, the opinion section of MindaNews. The Titus Brandsma Media Awards recently honored Mr. Diaz with a “Lifetime Achievement Award” for his “commitment to education and public information to Mindanawons as Journalist, Educator and Peace Advocate.” You can reach him at [email protected].)