In an audacious move to force both the Philippine and Malaysian governments to recognize the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim of ownership over Sabah, the Sultanate’s heirs physically occupied Lahad Datu in Sabah last February 7 along with two hundred followers. The armed group has hunkered down and refuses to return to Tawi-Tawi despite threats of prosecution by the Aquino government on the one hand and threats of forcible deportation by Malaysian authorities on the other.
The timing and intent are no secret. The heirs have broadcast their fear that an impending peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) brokered by Malaysia would derogate and even annul their claim.
There is a wealth of documentary evidence and there has never been any dispute over who originally had sovereignty over North Borneo now called Sabah, that is, the Sultanate of Sulu.
In 1962, the Sultan of Sulu ceded sovereignty over Sabah to the Philippines in order for the Philippine government to claim Sabah in international fora such as the United Nations and thereby protect the Sultanate’s claim of ownership. However when the British Empire granted independence to Malaysia in 1963, it included Sabah in the Federation of Malaysia falsely asserting that the Sulu Sultanate had earlier ceded Sabah to the British Empire.
For the past fifty years Malaysia has exercised de facto sovereignty over the disputed territory. The Philippines, through inaction, has practically defaulted on its claim.
Meanwhile, Malaysia continues to pay the paltry sum of P77,000 annually to the Sultanate as “cession” fee but which the Sultanate and international law experts interpret to be “rent” for a resource-rich territory more than one-third the size of the Philippines and with a sizeable Filipino population, most of whom are regarded by both governments as “illegals”.
Tens of thousands of Filipinos have been deported in immigration crackdowns and thousands more languish in Malaysian jails for various immigration offenses. Most of them are Muslims, of peasant or fisherfolk stock, who have crossed the 29 kilometers distance between Tawi-Tawi and Sabah to seek a better life.
President Aquino dissembles when he says he is stumped by the Sabah question. He is calling for a “study” of the Sabah claim as if he did not know that since 1962 the Philippines already had a categorical position and had in fact filed its claim with the United Nations.
Mr. Aquino also makes it appear that there is a big controversy as to who are the rightful heirs. He even disparages Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and the rest of his clan by saying that they do not have the “capability” to undertake the “incursion” into Sabah since they are clearly in financial straits. He imputes sinister forces backing the Kirams.
Mr. Aquino further berates Sultan Kiram III for his “mistaken belief” (sic) that the Office of the President had ignored his letter three years ago when it had just gotten “lost in the bureaucratic maze”. Still, he refuses to apologize for this neglect and to meet with the Sultan in order to arrive at mutually acceptable ways to resolve the stand-off.
He lays the blame on Sultan Kiram III for any harm that will befall his followers, for putting hundreds of thousands of Filipino migrants and other Sabah residents of Filipino descent at risk, for disrupting commerce between Sabah and the Sulu archipelago and for conspiring with unnamed forces in this adventurist entry into Sabah and prepares to throw the book at him for “violations of the Constitution” if he does not order his followers to leave Sabah.
Without a doubt President Aquino is giving Malaysia the go signal to move in on the beleaguered heirs and followers of the Sultanate with their continued refusal to budge. He is also preparing to wash his hands of any responsibility for a messy and bloody outcome and his utter failure to protect the lives and rights of these Filipinos whose only crime has been to assert their rightful claim to their homeland.
President Aquino recklessly describes the Sultanate’s claim as a “hopeless cause” thereby seriously undermining whatever negotiating position is left for the Philippine government after half a century of failing to pursue the claim.
The Philippine government’s inaction in pursuing the Sabah claim has much to do with subsuming it to political and geopolitical considerations; in short, the wish to bring an end to the Moro secessionist movement in the South through peace negotiations in which Malaysia currently plays a key role as facilitator, as much as to appease oil-rich Malaysia.
In stark contrast is the Aquino administration’s treatment of the Spratlys and Panatag Shoal dispute with China. No less than the head of state engages in open polemics on the territorial dispute at every available opportunity, domestic or international. It has even filed a case against China for international arbitration.
Note that while we have strong grounds to assert our sovereignty over the Spratlys and Panatag Shoal, we have even more compelling historical and legal bases to claim Sabah.
Such double standard is exposing the deceitful and sham patriotism of the Aquino administration. It is aggressively engaging the territorial dispute with China not because of its patriotic duty to defend the national sovereignty and territorial integrity but rather to kowtow to US Superpower interests.
In reality, the puppet Aquino government is using the Spratlys/Panatag Shoal dispute to promote US imperialism’s hegemonic schemes in the region under the so-called “pivot to Asia Pacific”. It is using the dispute with China to justify the ever increasing presence of American troops, warships, jet fighters and drones, and other war materiel in the country’s territory under the auspices of the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA).
Published in Business World
1-2 March 2013