Cacique diplomacy

By Carol Pagaduan-Araullo
Streetwise | BusinessWorld

Why is it taking forever for Malacanang to state whether it acknowledges the official claim of the Philippines to Sabah and will pursue it with vigor or will drop it like a hot potato?

Many are beginning to surmise that the Aquino regime is not all convinced that the Sabah claim has merit and his description of it as a “hopeless cause” is not just a slip of the tongue indicating “ignorance or incompetence” as Sultan Jamalul Kiram III suspects but his regime’s point of view and even policy on the matter.

The objective of the so-called study ordered by Mr. Aquino appears to be to find holes in the claim rather than determine its veracity and validity. Otherwise, why has the “study” not come up with anything at all so far? Surely the DFA and other government agencies can dig up the documentation on the Philippines’ Sabah claim whilst Mr. Aquino consults the many experts that have specialized in scholarly, legal and historical, study of the same.

The Aquino regime’s indifference to the Philippines’ Sabah claim underlies his 1) disdain over Sultanate’s political act of asserting their claim of ownership; 2) belief that this is merely part of a grand conspiracy by his political enemies to make trouble, in particular to throw a monkey wrench into the GPH-MILF peace negotiations; 3) refusal to negotiate in earnest with the Sultanate’s heirs instead resorting to publicly-aired ultimatums and threats of criminal prosecution against Sultan Kiram III and other “co-conspirators”; 4) speaking and acting as if he fully concedes Malaysia’s sovereignty over Sabah, that is, the Sultanate’s unarmed followers and members of its “Royal Security Forces” are the transgressors and the Malaysian government is justified in using all-out force to exterminate them.

Too bad for Mr. Aquino it is not going to be easy to rewrite the pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial history with regard to North Borneo now Sabah.

The facts are clear and incontrovertible. The Sulu Sultanate came to own and rule over North Borneo in 1704 when the Sulu Sultan’s relative, the Sultan of Brunei, granted the territory to the former in return for helping him quell his enemies.

In 1878, the Sulu Sultanate entered into a lease agreement with the British North Borneo Company, a private trading company; for a consideration of 5000 Malayan dollars per year, the BNBC could exploit and develop North Borneo’s natural resources and administer the territory in the Sultanate’s behalf. This was upped to 5300 dollars in 1903 when Sultan Jamalul Kiram II signed a document leasing additional islands in the vicinity of the mainland of North Borneo.

Subsequently, the British Crown in collusion with the BNBC deliberately misinterpreted the term “padyak” in the 1878 agreement to mean “cession” instead of “lease” in order for the British to land grab North Borneo and falsely claim dominion or sovereignty over it.

The Sulu Sultanate came under the control of Spain in the 1880s but not North Borneo. The 1885 Madrid Protocol signed by Great Britain, Germany and Spain consolidated Spain’s continued sway over the Philippine islands while Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the territories of Borneo belonging to the Sultan of Sulu.

The United States officially notified Great Britain that North Borneo remained part of the Sulu Sultanate in 1906 and 1920; nevertheless, Britain proceeded to annex North Borneo as a colony in 1946.

The 1935 Constitution defined Philippine territory to include “all other areas which belong to the Philippines on the basis of historical rights and legal claims” and thus effectively covered North Borneo. The Sulu Sultanate’s act of ceding sovereignty to the Republic of the Philippines on 12 September 1962, during the Diosdado Macapagal administration authorized the Philippine government to file the Sabah claim with the United Nations and other international forums.

The so-called plebiscite conducted under the auspices of the British colonialists and their Malayan subalterns in 1963 predictably resulted in a vote in favor of Sabah’s incorporation in the Federation of Malaysia. And so it came to pass that when Malaysia was formed in 1963, Britain’s illegal annexation of North Borneo was bequeathed to the new Malaysian state.

It is evident from the above that the Philippines has a solid claim to sovereignty over Sabah, to say the least. What is incomprehensible to many is why Presidents Macapagal and Marcos, who showed some interest in pursuing the claim at the beginning of their terms, eventually backed off. Successive regimes after Marcos chose to let the claim lie dormant, with Ramos and Estrada ordering “studies” on the bases and prospects for pursuing the claims, without any concrete or at least announced results.

The answer lies in the fact that the Philippine government’s foreign policy is still very much aligned with and influenced, if not dictated by US foreign policy and national interest. Thus, attempts to explain various regimes’ position on Sabah purely on the basis or in the context of Philippine national interest prove inadequate. Oftentimes, what is good for the US is misrepresented as good for the Philippines, too, especially on questions of “regional peace and stability”. What the US says is good for “regional peace and stability”, is good for the Philippines too.

With respect to Sabah, Philippine regimes invariably relegated the Philippine claim to the back burner to avoid confrontation with Malaysia or even antagonizing it in any way. Especially so since 1974 when Malaysia started playing a key role in the Organization of Islamic Conference’s intervention in the peace negotiations between the GRP and the MNLF, and more so since 2001 when Malaysia became the official Third Party Facilitator in the GPH-MILF talks.

This partly explains why Aquino, more than his predecessors, evidently has no interest in supporting the Kirams in renewing the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. As the Framework Agreement nears completion with most of the annexes agreed upon by the GPH and MILF panels, this is not the best time to incur the displeasure, if not ire, of the Third Party Facilitator, Malaysia. At the very least, it would appear to be an unpardonable act of ingratitude. At worst, Malaysia could retaliate and put the agreement in peril.

But this does not explain why Aquino has gone a lot farther to the extent of clearly siding with Malaysia. Not only has Aquino refused to acknowledge the peaceful intent of the Sultanate’s expedition to Sabah he has desisted from supporting the Kirams’ mostly symbolic and political move. He has threatened them with arrest and prosecution, broadcast his supposed doubts on the legitimacy even of their royal lineage, and practically accuses them of acting only at the behest of and in conspiracy with the much discredited Arroyos.

Mr. Aquino had virtually given the Malaysian government the green light to use coercive and armed means to end the stand-off and crush the Filipinos.

To top it all, Mr. Aquino has chosen to do a Pontius Pilate, washing his hands of the bloody outcome of his regime’s hard-line position against the Kirams. He has since relegated the handling of the Sabah crisis to his underlings while he blithely campaigns for his senatorial candidates and indulges in pontificating about the Sultan’s culpability for the ignominious end of his followers in Sabah.

Many who are still trying to understand the actuation and statements of Mr. Aquino with the assumption that his standpoint derives from the national interest are bound to be stumped and confused forever. In truth, Mr. Aquino’s derisive attitude can only be traced to his cacique upbringing and mindset.

Mr. Aquino, scion of landed elites and heir to the Cojuangco-Aquino political dynasty, can readily sympathize with the land grab of North Borneo perpetrated by the Malaysian state and ruling elite, because this is something he can relate to in light of the experience of the clan’s Hacienda Luisita. He is dealing with the Kirams in much the same way he and his clan has dealt with the Hacienda’s farm workers and tenants for decades – using deceit and force – to maintain an unjust status quo. #

Published in Business World
8-9 March 2013

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