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New Dispute Dogs Philippines and Malaysia

MANILA, Apr 19 2013 (IPS) - With little sign of a meaningful diplomatic breakthrough on the South China Sea horizons, coupled with a dangerous escalation between Vietnam and China in the disputed waters, the Philippines has faced an added crisis over the Malaysian state of Sabah.

The crisis was prompted when (Feb. 14) between 80-100 armed supporters of the descendants of the Sultanate of Sulu, led by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, launched a ragtag occupation of a remote area of the Malaysian state, precipitating a muscular response from the Malaysian security forces.

Despite incessant efforts by the Philippine government to prevent a violent confrontation, notably dispatching a humanitarian fleet to fetch children and women among the armed men, Malaysia and Kiram’s so-called Royal Security Forces (RSF) ended up fighting a protracted and bloody guerilla war, re-igniting a centuries-old tug-of-war between the Philippines and Malaysia over oil-rich Sabah.

Meanwhile, the conflict led to the potential displacement of up to 800,000 Filipinos residing in Sabah, with dozens of Filipinos accusing Malaysian authorities of committing human rights violations amid large-scale mopping-up operations against Kiram’s suspected followers.

As the crisis intensified, more supporters – straddling porous maritime borders and infiltrating the naval blockade by Filipino-Malaysian forces – of Sulu Sultanate entered the theatre of war.  Within two months, confrontations led to the death of at least 68 members of the RSF and the arrest of 126 others, while up to 6,000 Filipinos residing in Sabah were reportedly displaced by the crisis.

In many ways, some analysts and commentators have characterised the whole fiasco as a classic case of intelligence failure, with both Manila and Kuala Lumpur failing to anticipate a bilateral crisis resulting from unilateral actions by a number of non-state actors. It was also, they claim, an example of crisis-management disaster, with both governments failing to effectively prevent an armed confrontation in absence of a close bilateral security-intelligence coordination and effective deployment of peaceful, diplomatic means.

All the while, the Philippines has been facing a dangerous escalation in the South China Sea in recent months, with Beijing (a) rejecting Manila’s call for an international arbitration of maritime disputes and (b) taking an unprecedented decision to deploy three “surveillance ships” and a naval helicopter to consolidate its claims over disputed features.

With a cloud of mystery shrouding the exact circumstances leading to the crisis, people have resorted to a range of conspiracy theories amid sensitive elections in Philippines, where the Aquino administration is facing a de facto referendum in a by-elections, and Malaysia, where the ruling coalition is facing a historical parliamentary battle against an emboldened opposition. Some are accusing the Aquino administration of orchestrating the Sabah crisis to score domestic political points, while others have pointed their finger at the Malaysian opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim.

The Malaysian government, meanwhile, has engaged in an effective public relations campaign, rousing nationalist sentiments and public sympathy for the government under Prime Minister Najib Razak, while an increasing number of Filipinos have renewed their calls for a more assertive stance by the Aquino administration on the Sabah issue, with some citizens petitioning the Supreme Court to instruct the executive to bring Philippines’ claims to international courts.

Responding to the popular pulse, the Aquino administration has promised to convene a panel of experts and government officials to review the possibility of subjecting the Sabah claim to international arbitration.

Prior to the independence of Malaysia and the Philippines, the Sultanate of Sulu laid claim to North Borneo, a gift from the Bruneian royalty, which it leased to the British North Borneo Company in 1878 in exchange for an annual payment of 5,000 Malayan dollars then, which was increased by another 300 Malayan dollars 1903 onwards.

At the onset of the emergence of the Malaysian Federation, after the withdrawal of British forces, the Sulu Sultanate ceded its North Borneo claim to the Philippine government in 1962. The following year, however, Sabah was incorporated into the Malaysian federation, provoking a diplomatic crisis between Manila and its new Southeast Asian neighbour.

The Marcos regime in the Philippines pushed the envelope by increasingly agitating against the newly formed Malaysian state, threatening to take back Sabah by force, which, in turn, prompted Kuala Lumpur to seek U.S. assistance to dissuade Manila against any armed action, according to newly-released diplomatic cables.

Initially, Marcos solicited the support of Filipino Muslims, the so-called ‘Moros’, to reclaim Sabah. But a series of events, notably the Jabbidah Massacre, escalated into an internal war between the Philippine government and an all-out insurgency in the South, led by the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) under charismatic academic-turned-warrior Nur Misuari.

Reportedly, what ensued was a proxy war, whereby the Malaysian government supported the insurgency to distract the Philippine government, which eventually decided to prioritise its strategic ties with its western neighbour and drop the pursuit of Sabah in order to focus on the domestic crisis.

No wonder, many have accused the Aquino administration of allegedly sidelining the country’s claim to Sabah in order to facilitate the Malaysian-brokered framework peace agreement with the country’s main insurgency group and MNLF-offshoot, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), in 2012.

For some, Kiram’s actions were a desperate attempt to highlight an otherwise forgotten territorial dispute, since the Sulu Sultan, prior to the crisis, is said to have repeatedly sought Manila’s assurances on upholding the Sabah claim in principle and practice. Meanwhile, the MNLF, with Misuari supporting Kiram’s stance on Sabah, has accused the Philippine government of striking new deals with the MILF, without fully honouring its earlier agreements with the group.

Against such a stormy backdrop, Malaysia imposed restrictions on barter deals with Filipino traders, while Manila and the MILF failed to reach a deal on key aspects of the framework agreement in the latest series of negotiations, underscoring the depth and range of challenges faced by the Aquino administration.

In effect, Manila has been placed in a precarious strategic position, whereby it is simultaneously facing two diplomatic crises to its west (Malaysia) and north (China), while desperately seeking to rein in domestic insurgency, especially in the southern island of Mindanao.

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  • DM

    Can you provide prove that the Sultan of Brunei gave away any part of Sabah to Sulu, or are you making a conclusion merely based upon hearsays? Is this journalism?

  • Dongne

    Malaysia paying rent $5300 annually since 1903? This is clearly abuse on the poor and ignorant landlord. Now that he has wised up and wants to increase the rent, which is his prerogative, Malaysia should do the right thing. This is now the 21st century. We don’t usurp our neighbors property this days. There is no dispute here. It’s a matter of doing the right thing. Pay up or leave.

  • AM

    @861493fc31bed218db1b266f3054c433:disqus Google it. You’ll find the answer to your question dates back hundreds of years.

    @665d3882145f87b86122494fc4919eb0:disqus there are currently two claimants to the Sultanate of Sulu pushing the issue. The one that invaded wanted to do so by military force, the other wants to do so peacefully (though completely unsuccessful on gaining any ground on the issue. Their real prerogative is to reclaim their lost kingdom, doing so in the name of their ancestors like every other nation that has been colonized and had their respective culture and history sanitized along “civilized” lines.

    Their claim to Sabah is legitimate considering how the translation says the territory was leased/ceded. It is however more correct to say it was leased considering the British did pay the Sultan annually.

    However, Sultan Kiram’s demands to increase the payment on the Malaysian state is illegal and unwarranted. Malaysia is not a signatory of that agreement and really had no reason to pay him, the British singed the agreement, not Malaysia. The Malaysian Government continued the payments in place of the British though, however, they did so in respect of history. They annexed the territory like the American’s annexed California, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, or Nevada from Mexico.
    The difference is the Malaysian Government understands this and isn’t a ‘jerk’ about it. ie US-Mexico fence, laws that remove the right-of-man from the illegal immigrant etc.

  • Gold Shoppings

    you can find many North Borneo Lease documents signed by your british master in Washington DC and if you want more docs you can go to BRUNEI MUSEUMN Archieves If you can afford it

  • Dongne

    By accepting Sabah and continuing to pay the rent, Malaysia becomes a signatory.

    Otherwise, Malaysia is just like the owner of a stolen property, for basically the British stole it and give it to Malaysia. Britain did not have the right to dispose Sabah.

  • Victor

    The Sultanate of Sulu is simply a name, plain and simple. It is not a force to be reckoned with. Malaysia can simply ignore this issue and just carry on. If Filipino terrorists come, the security force could just simply wipe them out. Ethnic Filipinos living in Sabah are subjects of Malaysia.

  • Sepilok

    the Brunei Museum archives dispute the transfer of ownership of Sabah from the Brunei to Sulu.

  • PurpleDaisy13

    DM, Everyone knows the history between the Sultan of Brunei and the Sultan of Sulu in the mid 1960s. All Historians agree that the Sultan of Brunei declared an oral traditional agreement with the Sultan of Sulu in acquiring Northern Borneo if the Sultan of Sulu further assisted in defeating the “original” Sultan of Brunei.

    Are you the only one not aware of this DM?

    The Sultan of Brunei, Muhydin, orally promised to give the Sultan of Sulu, Salahud-Din Bakhtiar, Northern Borneo (Eastern Sabah) for helping him conquer and destroy his enemies on the island of Palau Cermin.

    Why did the Sultan of Brunei, Muhydin, make such offer to the Sultan of Sulu? Because it was the Sultan of Sulu who helped make Muhydin the Sultan of Brunei by fighting the “original” Sultan of Brunei, Abdul Mubin, who initially appointed Muhydin as just an Administrator of Brunei.

    In other words, Abdul Mubin, the original Sultan of Brunei was BETRAYED by his own appointed Administrator, Muhydin. They fought for many years while Muhydin succeeded with the assistance from the Sultan of Sulu.

    So regardless of the effort that the Sultan of Sulu performed in the battle of the island of Palau Cermin where the original Sultan of Brunei, Abdul Mubin, remained, the Sultan of Sulu DID MORE than enough to help Muhydin BETRAY the original Sultan of Brunei so that Muhydin may be relieved from any other threats against his new throne and position.

    And because of these events of BETRAYAL and REQUESTED SUPPORT by the Sultan of Brunei, the British recognized and acknowledged that not only did the Sultan of Brunei make an oral promise to the Sultan of Sulu that was still fulfilled, but the Sultan of Brunei, Muyhdin, owed the Sultan of Sulu an enormous wealth of gratitude for helping him BETRAY the original Sultan of Brunei so that he can steal the throne for himself. In which case, resulted in immediately establishing a legitimate agreement between the correct and legal parties, the Sultan of Sulu and the British in 1878.

    Thus, the sovereign will rightfully and well-deserved by the Sultan of Sulu was implied in the “Written” contract made between the 1878 Lease Agreement as stated:

    “the Sultan of Sulu, on behalf of himself, his heirs, and successors, and with the consent and advice of the Datus in Council assembled, granted and ceded of his own free and sovereign will to the grantees, as representatives of British Company”

    Hence, everyone agrees that the Sultan of Sulu acquired North Borneo (Eastern Sabah) as a token of gratitude by the “new” Sultan of Brunei, including the British who later established a “Written” document in his favor that supersedes the document signed with the Sultan of Brunei a few weeks prior.

    DM, Can you provide and prove that the Sultan of Brunei, Muhydin, objected his token of gratitude for ceding Northern Borneo (Eastern Sabah) to the Sultan of Sulu, Salahud-Din Bakhtiar? No

    Therefore, the 1878 Agreement between the British and the Sultan of Sulu proves that the Sultan of Sulu owned Northern Borneo (Eastern Sabah) without “objection” or “contest” by the Sultan of Brunei.

  • PurpleDaisy13

    re: “The Sultanate of Sulu is simply a name, plain and simple.”


    The Sultan of Sulu and his heirs are the owner of North Borneo (Eastern Sabah) since 1658.

    Senator Miriam Santiago, an expert in international law, stressed that the Philippines has not relinquished its claim to Sabah.

    She said that should the territorial dispute be elevated to the International Court of Justice, the Philippines would win on the basis of a document showing that the sultanate of Sulu did not cede but only leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878.

    In 1946, the company ceded Sabah to the British Crown. Malaysia then included Sabah in its newly formed federation in 1963.

    Even the argument that native Sabahans chose to be part of Malaysia would not hold water, Santiago said.

    “First of all, there has to be sovereignty possessed by the state as represented by its government,” she said. “The population by itself cannot change the nature of that sovereignty.”

    But while Malaysia refuses to join Philippines to settle this issue in the International Court of Justice, anti-Malaysian forces shall continue to occupy North Borneo (Eastern Sabah) to reinforce the violence and war taking place in Malaysia’s North Borneo (Eastern Sabah) War Zone.

  • PurpleDaisy13

    re: “Malaysia is not a signatory of that agreement and really had no reason
    to pay him, the British singed the agreement, not Malaysia.”

    The Malaysian government is not a signatory of the 1878 agreement, and neither was the British government. Thus, the Malaysian government AND the British government had NO RIGHT to pay the Sultan of Sulu annual lease payments to lease North Borneo (Eastern Sabah) because…

    a) the Exclusive signatories of the 1878 agreement was made only between the Sultan of Sulu (and his heirs/successors), and the business entity, the British North Borneo Company) as stated:

    the Sultan of Sulu, on behalf of himself, his heirs, and successors, and with the consent and advice of the Datus in Council assembled, granted and ceded of his own free and sovereign will to the grantees, as representatives of British Company

    b) the British North Borneo Company did not have a standing of a government entity which should have denied them from transferring their rights to a government entity such as the British government or the Malaysian government.

    In fact, on November 19, 1906, the U.S. Department of State expressed the following to the British Embassy in Washington, D.C regarding the Sultan of Sulu and his leased property of North Borneo (Eastern Sabah):

    …the US Department of State stated that Sabah was not an Imperial possession of the British Crown, that the British North Borneo Company which had leased Sabah from the Sultan of Sulu, did not have a national status, and that the company did not have an administration with the standing of a government…

    In other words, Malaysia today is perpetuating the possession of land property on the basis of FRAUD.

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