Lawyer of Sulu Sultan’s heirs on Sabah: ‘final say’ from Philippine gov’t body

JOLO, Sulu (MindaNews/17 March) –  Claiming Malaysia acted in bad faith, the lawyer of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu said Malaysia “must immediately turn over” Sabah to the heirs and the Philippine government and pay them “no less than 50% of its income from 1963 to the present.”

“In my considered opinion, since the Malaysia acted in bad faith in the occupation of British North Borneo-Sabah, Malaysia must immediately turn over its possession of the Sabah territory (to) the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and the Philippine government,” lawyer Ulka Ulama said in a three-page letter addressed to Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines, Dato Mohd Zamri Mohd Kassim, dated and mailed via a commercial courier on Friday, March 15.

“Malaysia will have to wake up,” Ulama told MindaNews in his office here on Saturday, as he took out folders of his files on Sabah and pointed to a filing cabinet filled with Sabah-related documents.

Atty. Ulka Ulama leafs through the annexes to the March 15 letter he sent to the Malaysian Ambassador to Manila.  MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas
Atty. Ulka Ulama leafs through the annexes to the March 15 letter he sent to the Malaysian Ambassador to Manila. MindaNews photo by Carolyn O. Arguillas

But Ulama, who has been receiving since 1975  the 5,000 Malaysian ringgit “annual customary payment”  of Malaysia on behalf of  the heirs,  acknowledged in his letter that the “final say” on Sabah will come from the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on Sabah Issues (BELACS), a body first created 20 years ago under the Ramos administration and reconstituted under the Estrada and Arroyo administrations.

Ulama said President Benigno Simeon Aquino III should now appoint members of the BELACS “to solve the current Sabah issue.”

Ulama recommended that the private sector membership in BELACS will include former Senator Santanina Rasul,  himself “and Kiram.” The letter did not say which Kiram he was referring to. Asked which Kiram he was referring to, Ulama replied “We will get the approval from the Kiram after the BELACS approval to avoid any misunderstanding.”

Copies of the March 15 letter to Kassim were also mailed to President Aquino, Vice President Jejomar Binay, Senate President Juan Ponce Enrile, House Speaker Feliciano Belmonte, Jr., and Loretta Ann Rosales, chair of the Commission on Human Rights.

Ulama ended his letter with a prayer “that the Sabah crisis will be resolved as soon  as possible without bloodshed.”.

“61 terrorists shot dead”

In Sabah, Police Commissioner Datuk Hamza Taib announced on Saturday that Operasi Daulat (Operation Uphold Sovereignty), launched with aerial and ground attacks on March 5 to flush out the “Royal Security Forces” of  Sultan Jamalul Kiram III from Lahad Datu where they had holed up since February 12 until violence broke out on March 1, “will continue until all areas in the district are rid of the intruders from southern Philippines.”

Taib was quoted by the state-owned news agency, Bernama, as saying, “We will finish it (operation) as soon as possible” even as he “stressed that the security forces did not have a deadline for the operation.”

Bernama’s report said that from March 5 to 16,  “61 terrorists were shot dead, with 27 of their bodies removed from the red zone, while 104 were detained on suspicion of having links with the terrorists. An additional 232 were detained for being in forbidden areas.”

The “Royal Security Forces,” numbering about 200, led by Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, holed up in Lahad Datu last month to assert the Kirams’ proprietary rights over  “The Land Below the Wind,” as Sabah is popularly known for.

Resource-rich Sabah, the second largest state in Malaysia, has, according to its official website, has an area of 72,500 sq. kilometers, almost thrice the size of the 26,974 sq. kilometre Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Ulama in his letter cited Sabah’s income in 1998 at “more than US $45.98 billion.”

 Less than a million pesos in a decade

In his March 15, 2013 letter, Ulama, who has been receiving payment for the heirs from the Malaysian Embassy since 1975,  said he wrote Malaysian Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak through the OIC of the Malaysian Embassy on September 17, 2012, inquiring if Malaysia is still paying the “Annual Customary Payment Rental” to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu because he had not received payment after 2010.

“If the answer is yes, to whom did Malaysia tender the payment? Is the person (to) whom payment (was) made, cloth(ed) with authority?” Ulama asked.

Ulama attached several annexes to his letter, including copies of the letters and cheques from sent to him by the Embassy of Malaysia in Philippines from 2001 to 2010, totalling less than  million pesos for 10 years:  P724,845.04.

The cheques from the Malaysian Embassy were in Philippine pesos, apparently based on the prevailing exchange rate and the Embassy’s accompanying letters indicated these were for “payment of ‘cession money’ to heirs of Sultan of Sulu for the year….”

Ulama’s letter showed only two columns: the year and amount paid. MindaNews added a third column to indicate the date the payments were made.  As can be gleaned from the third column, there is no fixed date for the payment of what the Malaysian Embassy refers to as “cession money.”

Year                Amount                      Date paid
2001                P68,888.44                  March 6, 2002
2002                P73,940.77                  April 16, 2003
2003                P77,442.36                  March 18, 2004
2004                P78,212.62                  Oct. 5, 2005
2005                P72,000.11                  Oct. 9, 2006
2006                P70,444.06                  July 5, 2007
2007                P71,242.30                  July 16, 2009
2008                P69,504.55                  Feb. 24, 2009
2009                P69,770.81                  May 7, 2009
2010                P73,399.02                  June 22, 2010

No “cession money” was paid in 2008 for the year 2007. But three payments were made in 2009: for 2007, 2008 and 2009.

Payment for 2008 was made on February 24, 2009;  for 2009 on May 7, 2009 and the late payment for 2007 was paid only on July 16, 2009.

Ulama said Malaysia “has defaulted in its payment for 2011, 2012 and 2013.”

$749 million

Ulama said that through the years, he had written to the Prime Minister of Malaysia through the Malaysian Embassy in the Philipines and the Philippine President through the Department of Foreign Affairs “countless times to increase the Annual Customary payment rentals to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu” but received no answer except during the time of President Joseph Estrada.

On April 16, 1999, then  Foreign Affairs Secretary Domingo L. Siazon, Jr. wrote a memorandum for Executive Secretary Ronald Zamora on the “request of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu” for the Philippine government to “submit their request to the Malaysian government… for an incremental increase in the ‘cession monies’ or annual rental paid by the Malaysian Government to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu in the amount of US $749 million covering from 1962 and taking into account the money/land values and improvement of Sabah.”

Siazon said that upon payment of the full amount, “the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu are willing to waive their proprietary rights over Sabah (North Borneo).”


Siazon referred to the Philippines’ claim over Sabah as “unique” in that it has two distinct and separate aspects – the proprietary rights of the Sultanate of Sulu as represented by the heirs and the Philippines’ sovereignty right which was ceded by the Sultanate of Sulu through the Sultan of Sulu in favor of the Philippine government in 1962.

He noted that under the principle of parens patriae, the Philippine government should help the heirs in pursuing their proprietary claims. “The question, however, is whether Malaysia would be willing to pay the amount demanded by the heirs as full settlement of their claim without any condition. Chances are Malaysia would not be agreeable to a full settlement unless the Philippines drops its sovereign claim to Sabah,” Siazon wrote.

Siazon recommended that the Estrada administration reconstitutes the Legislative-Executive Advisory Council on Sabah “in view of the last election and empower it to deliberate on the request of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and its consequent effect on the sovereignty claim of the Philippines over Sabah, the issue of multiple claimants to the title of  ‘heir of the Sultan of Sulu,’ as well as the over-all bilateral relations between the Philippines and Malaysia.

EO 46 was issued by President Ramos on January 11, 1993, days before making his first state visit to Malaysia.

The Council was to be composed of eight representatives from the Executive Branch to be designated by the President, eight members of the Senate including a member of the minority party, to be designated by the Senate President and eight members of the House of Representatives including a member of the minority party, to be designated by the Speaker of the House.

Under the EO, the Council is to “serve as an advisory body to the President with respect to the Philippine claim on Sabah” and shall “formulate and recommend alternative modes of pursuing the Sabah claim in the appropriate international and regional fora; advise the President on the manner in which the Philippine claim on Sabah may be successfully pursued taking into consideration the requirements of regional harmony and cooperation;  and advise the President on the attendant complications and ramifications regarding the Sabah issue.”

President Joseph Estrada issued EO 117 reconstituting the Council on July 5, 1999  with the same number of members and the same functions but added a feature to the third function: “advise the President on the attendant complications and ramifications as well as other issues related to the Sabah claim, including the request of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu for an increase in cession monies.”

President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, whose administration got Malaysia to facilitate the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front issued EO 121 on September  6, 2002 but reduced the number of members to five each for the executive, the Senate and the House and added three seats for private sector representation.

Arroyo also summed up the Council’s function in only one sentence: “The Council shall serve as an advisory body to the President with respect to the broad range of issues concerning Sabah.”

The Aquino administration has yet to issue an EO on the BELACS.

On February 21, he announced the creation of a study group to review the country’s options on Sabah.

“I am not an expert. I have tasked the experts to study all of this and to find out precisely all of our standings. Where do we stand? And from where we stand where do we move forward?”  Aquino said in an interview in Iloilo.  (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)