The claim to Sabah: A historical perspective

By Kathlyn dela Cruz,

Posted at Mar 07 2013 10:04 PM | Updated as of Mar 08 2013 11:10 AM

MANILA, Philippines -- The issue of who rightfully owns North Borneo, or Sabah as people has come to know it, stems all the way back to the 1600s, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office (PCDSPO) Undersecretary Manuel "Manolo" Quezon III said.

Speaking with Mornings@ANC on Thursday, Quezon shared a timeline of key events that he had compiled on Sabah's history to help shed light on the long-standing Sabah claim issue.

He, however, clarified that the timeline, which starts at the 1640s, is not an official position paper of the Philippine government.

Quezon said historical documents show that the Sultanate of Sulu, which controlled the Sulu islands in the Muslim southern Philippines, indeed owned a part of Borneo, including Sabah.

During the 1700s, the Sultan of Brunei transferred a piece of its land under the control of the Sulu sultanate. Around 1800 to 1850, the Sultan of Sulu then gave a part of its land to another sultan who gave it away to the Dutch.

Indonesia, as a successor to the Dutch, later owned the land.

The Sulu sultanate then "lost" its remaining land, which was later named Sabah, during the period of European colonialism in 1878 after it was either leased or sold to a British trading company, which remains a controversy up to now.

He clarified, however, that under the current arrangement, the heirs of the Sultanate still receive annual payments from Malaysia.

"This was all property of the Sultan of Brunei and at a certain point, he gave a big chunk of what he owned in his part of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu. The Sultan of Sulu, in turn...sort of put a chunk under the control of another sultan who promptly gave it away to the Dutch," he said.

He added: "Then again in 1878, he had the remaining chunk and the whole controversy is whether he leased it or sold it to a company called the British North Borneo Company (BNBC)... This is what we know as Sabah basically."

End to the existence of Sulu sultanate as a country

Quezon said when the United States of America took over the Philippines, the Sultanate of Sulu, under The Carpenter Treaty, agreed to give up its sovereign rights over Sulu provided that the sultan would still be recognized as the "spiritual leader" of the Muslims.

"In the end, the Americans took over the Philippines and in 1915, there was an agreement that put an end to the existence of the Sultanate of Sulu as a country."

"Basically, what the Sultan of Sulu accepted...was 'I recognize the sovereignty of the United States and in exchange, I get some property, an allowance and I am recognized as the spiritual leader of the Muslims in my old territories,'" he said.

Quezon said the Sabah controversy this time emerged anew as the sultan only mentioned giving up his sovereign rights over Sulu.

"What about his claim on [Sabah] by which at this time was under the control of the British?"

He noted that in 1888, Britain declared BNBC as a protectorate and later handed it over to the new nation of Malaysia in 1963.

Title of Sultan of Sulu disputed among heirs

Quezon also noted that another problem arose when Sultan Jamalul Kiram II, "the last uncontested sultan," died in 1936. He said the title of Sultan of Sulu was disputed among the heirs for over 10 years.

"The heirs were fighting among themselves and couldn't agree on who will be the actual sultan," he said.

The dispute was only settled in 1950 when Esmail Kiram was crowned Sultan of Sulu.

In 1962, Sultan Esmail then asserted their ownership of Sabah and decided to give up their sovereign rights to the Philippines but reserved to the heirs of the Sultanate their rights over income from lease payments, which at that time was coming from the Malaysian government.

In 1963, the Philippine government, under then President Diosdado Macapagal started laying out its claim over Sabah.

Constitution, Baseline Law

In 1968, Republic Act 5446 was signed into law. The Baseline Law includes "the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty."

The 1973 Philippine Constitution also defined the country's territory to include "all the other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic or legal title."

In 1977, the Malaysian government asked the Philippines, under then President Ferdinand Marcos, to give up its claim on Sabah. The Malaysia wanted the Philippine government to eliminate the clause on "historic title" in its constitution and repeal RA 5446.

The 1987 Constitution then defined the Philippine territory to include "all the other territories over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction."

Quezon said that while the Philippines did take out the "historical title" phrase, it was unclear whether the government had already given up its claim on the disputed territory.

RA 5446 (Baselines Law) was also amended in 2009, but a Supreme Court decision said Republic 9522 or The Baselines Law still did not relinquish the Philippine claim to Sabah,

Title of Sultan of Sulu disputed anew

When the last acknowledged Sultan Mahakutta Kiram, who reigned after his father Esmail's death in 1974, died in 1986, the title of Sultan of Sulu was again disputed among heirs.

Quezon said with many of the heirs claiming to be the rightful Sultan of Sulu, the Philippine government was left in a "quandary".

"Until it can be resolved among themselves, it leaves the government in a quandary," he said.

Quezon noted that in traditional cultures, the saying that "majority rules" does not apply. "The elders must have a unified voice. That is how you maintain both the prestige and authority."

"You need to have an understanding among everyone involved. If one or two or a group say no, then you're back to square one... That is the whole basis of you don't elect them, they don't run for office. It has to be the semblance of unity of the elders is maintained," he added.

He said Jamalul Kiram III, whose followers have been engaged in a standoff with Malaysian authorities for over three weeks now, is only one among the claimants of the title of Sultan of Sulu. Jamalul's brother, cousin, and nephew are also claimants to the sultan title.

Some 180 members of the Sulu royal army, led by Jamalul's brother, entered Lahad Datu town last February 12 to insist on the Philippines’ proprietary and sovereign rights over Sabah. As of posting, Malaysian security forces were still hunting them down. Eight Malaysian police and at least 50 of Jamalul's followers have been killed in clashes which began Friday last week.