Claiming Sabah is a quixotic thing to do

Map of Sabah. Malaysia and the Philippines have a long-standing dispute on Sabah's sovereignty.

Map of Sabah. Malaysia and the Philippines have a long-standing dispute on Sabah’s sovereignty.

Last week, 12 February 2013, there was a stand-off in Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia where 400 persons including 20-40 who were armed have infiltrated the town of Lahad Datu in behalf of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of the former Sultanate of Sulu on the basis that North Borneo or Sabah is in the dominion of the former Sultanate of Sulu and the recently signed peace deal between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front or MILF, appeared to have isolated that deal, prompted the decision to send the men to Sabah this month.

They were given until Tuesday or 26 February to withdraw from Sabah and return to Sulu but the Sultan has been consistent not to do so because the Malaysian government is still paying yearly rental dues to them as a result of the 1878 lease agreement between the British North Borneo Company and the Sultanate of Sulu.

The Sabah sovereignty dispute between the Philippines representing the Sultanate of Sulu and Malaysia should be traced back in 1878 when an agreement between the British North Borneo Company represented by Alfred Dent and Baron von Overback and the Sultanate of Sulu, which stipulated that North Borneo be which stipulated that North Borneo was either ceded or leased (depending on translation used) to the British syndicate in return for payment of 5000 Malayan Dollar per year. The dispute on whether the Sultanate of Sulu leased or ceded North Borneo to the British North Borneo Company has been in contentious dispute until now because different interpretations of the American, British, Dutch, and Spanish interpretations of the word “padjak” where all of them expect the British interpreted to mean as “rent” or “arrendamiento” while the British interpreted as “grant or cede”.

The dispute has become a complicated ones when the Spanish colonial government in Manila, where the Sultanate of Sulu had belong as a protectorate after the Treaty of 1851,  relinquished all claim to North Borneo which had belong to the Sultanate in the past through the Madrid Protocol of 1885.

21 years later in 1906, the American colonial government, who was controlling the Philippine archipelago including Sulu after they ousted the Spaniards 8 years before, formally reminded Great Britain that North Borneo did not belong to the Crown and was still part of the Sultanate of Sulu. However, the British did turn Sabah into a Crown Colony in 1946. American reminders were denied on the basis that the Sultanate of Sulu was a mere protectorate of Spanish East Indies based in Manila during the signing of the Madrid Protocol in 1885 while they asserted that the Spain never acquired sovereignty over North Borneo.

This ambiguity has been passed to our Philippine government through the promulgation of the 1935 constitution which states that the national territory of the Philippines included, among other things, “all other areas which belong to the Philippines on the basis of historical rights or legal claims” as a weapon to claim North Borneo.

Malaysia asserted its claim on North Borneo after the British left in 1963 and the residents were decided through a UN-supervised referendum on whether to be a part with the Federation of Malaysia or with the Republic of the Philippines and when the results were announced, Sabahans chose to be a part with the former.

A year before the Federation of Malayan States, during the presidency of President Diosdado Macapagal, the former Sultanate of Sulu ceded its rights on claiming North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines, thus gave the Philippines an authority to claim Sabah unsuccessfully from Great Britain. The Philippines broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the federation had included Sabah in 1963 but probably resumed it unofficially through the Manila Accord.

The Philippines tried to claim Sabah through force through forming a number of Moro Muslim recruits to train for the invasion of  Sabah which was not executed as most of the recruits were massacred during their training in Corregidor attempting to escape the training led by military handlers according to some accounts. The massacre became the root cause of Moro discontent against the Philippine government from Marcos up to the present time.

I think the reason on why Sabah is not ours was because the Spaniards were too late of consolidating their control on the Philippine archipelago including Sabah and when the Spaniards gained sovereignty over the Sulu and Sabah for a short period of time, the British, Germans, Austrians, and even Americans were already looking to control the then-Sultanate of Sulu and as Spain did not have enough money or manpower to control the then-Sultanate of Sulu, they had to relinquish Sabah in exchange for the sovereignty of Sulu archipelago. When the Americans wanted to claim Sabah in 1906 and 1920, it was way too late to claim it. Also, the Philippine government was way too late of pursuing to claim Sabah. Therefore, Sabah’s exclusion from the Philippines was a product of Spanish Empire’s long decline of its prominence to the British Empire, who  economically and militarily controlled the world when Spain gave up its control on Sabah.

I don’t think making foolish military actions to claim Sabah to us would gather sympathy to the Sabahans and in fact, the recent stand-off further scared the motives of the Sultanate of Sulu and the Philippines on claiming Sabah. We don’t have even an enough military technology and manpower to assert our claims on Sabah against the Malaysians, how much more of making a sensible military actions to claim Sabah?

We should not sacrifice our relations not just with Malaysia but also with the rest of ASEAN on claiming Sabah in a foolish way. We need to befriend all of them though a greater economic and political integration where if the latter achieves sometime in the future, it would be easier for the Filipinos to live and work in Sabah under the ASEAN supranation umbrella like what most European Union member states under the Schengen Area where the Germans can live and work in France or vice versa without barriers.

If we want to pursue our claims on Sabah, we have to clean our own backyard first like improving the lives of the Filipinos into Malaysian levels or greater than of that so that the people of Sabah will insinuate to be part of our country.

3 thoughts on “Claiming Sabah is a quixotic thing to do

  1. Hey Joseph, thanks for your comments. My name is Dominic Chan and I reside in Shah Alam, Malaysia. I tried very hard to look for information on why suddenly the Sulu Sultanate lay claims to Sabah. There isn’t any truth, correct literature or information and perhaps many Malaysians, including Sabahans are stumped. Even if there are any truths, Sabahans and the Malaysian Govt (especially the majority Malay Muslims) could have censored out the literature. By the way, I was born in Sarawak, a city called Sibu. I am Roman Catholic (by birth and a bad one) and now currently living near Kuala Lumpur after my various overseas stint and education.

  2. Please verify your information. Majority of these contents are very opinionated with baseless facts. you should do further concrete research. As a writer or blogger one should learn how to analyze facts in objective manner.

  3. Hello Joseph,
    I agree completely with your view that the main reason Sabah no longer resides within the Philippines nation is answered in the exchange of North Borneo to the British in exchange for international recognition of Spanish sovereignty over Sulu in the Madrid Protocol 1885 (but only the eastern part that belonged to Sulu; the western part belonged to Brunei and was given to the British in 1978).
    I wrote a parallel article in the Daily Express in 2008 (Daily Express is the main English newspaper in Sabah), expressing my research output on the fact that eastern North Borneo was separated from Sulu control as a result of losing its own sovereignty to the Spaniards in 1836 (a loss of sovereignty that was renewed through Spanish-Sulu treaties in 1852 and 1878), and through the Madrid Protocol 1885 losing eastern North Borneo to the British North Borneo Chartered Company.
    However, as Malaysia continues to pay the annual payment of RM5300 to the Sultan of Sulu descendants (one of 20 claimants!) granted under the original Sulu-Overbeck Treaty 1878 (which is void and illegal as the Sultan of Sulu in 1878 was already part of the Spanish Empire and therefore could not conduct its own foreign policy but only through the Spaniards in Manila), many historians claim that therefore the Sulu-Overbeck Treaty 1878 forms the basis of Sabah’s separation from the Philippines. Malaysia’s own action of paying this annual sum therefore has no basis in international law and therefore can only be construed as a political and not a legal act.
    If the Philippines government brings its claim on Sabah to the ICJ, it will surely lose based on this historical evidence.
    Once again, I agree with your view on the merit of the Philippines claim on Sabah.

    Raz Koroh
    (Kota Kinabalu, Sabah)

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