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We Filipinos have again learned the hard way that we can’t put things off indefinitely because at some point those things will come back around and bite us. Such is the Sabah issue. For decades we were told that a portion of what was then called North Borneo belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu. The land in question it appears was awarded by the Sultan of Brunei to the Sultan of Sulu for the latter’s help during the Brunei Civil War (1660 to 1673). That would clearly indicate that the Sulu Sultanate is the rightful owner of vast tracts of land in the northeastern part of what we now call Sabah.
But things begin to get complicated starting in 1851 when the Sultan of Sulu signed a peace treaty with Spain. The Spanish understood that treaty meant the Sultan accepted Spanish sovereignty, and Sulu became a part of Las Islas Filipinas. In addition, on July 22, 1878 the Sultan of Sulu signed a Peace and Capitulation agreement with Spain whereby the Sultan relinquished his sovereign rights over all his possessions in favor of the Spanish crown. In 2003 the International Court of Justice agreed with this interpretation of the agreement.
Six months before signing that Peace and Capitulation agreement with Spain however, the Sultan entered into an agreement with Alfred Dent and Baron von Overback that either ceded or leased (depending on which version of the agreement you use) his holdings in Northeastern Borneo to the British East India Company in perpetuity for a remuneration of 5,000 Malayan Dollars per year.
Then in 1885, Great Britain, Germany and Spain sign the Madrid Protocol whereby all three countries affirmed Spanish sovereignty over the entire Philippines. Spain in turn renounced her claims to all lands in North Borneo that were owned by the Sulu Sultanate.
Finally on April 22, 1903, the reigning Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram placed his royal signature on a document called "Confirmation of cession of certain islands" effectively confirming in writing that he had given up control of all his land holdings in Northeastern Borneo to the British East India Company. The company in return was to increase his remuneration to 5,300 Malayan Dollars a year.
Based on the foregoing, it would seem Sultan Jamalul Kiram III no longer has a leg to stand on with regards to his Sabah claim. The Spanish, then the British, followed by the Malaysians seemed to have had it in for the Sultanate and its land holdings from the beginning. And a succession of Philippine governments never bothered to seriously look into the matter to determine whether the Sultanate had indeed a valid claim. Instead generations of Filipinos were simply told that Sabah really belongs to the Philippines, but nothing was ever done about it.
To complicate matters even more, we have a current president who appears incapable of standing up to any country for fear that such actions would endanger the legions Filipinos who work there. The law of unintended consequences has made sure that from President Assad of Syria, to Malaysia’s President Najib Razak, the worst they can expect from the Philippines is a half-smile (ngiting aso) from its president. The country’s coffers are now piled high with foreign currency from OFWs (overseas Filipino workers) but the Philippine government has to be very careful not to step on any foreign leader’s toes.
We believe Philippine government must seriously look into this matter and determine once and for all whether the sultanate’s claim to parts of Sabah is valid and thus worth pursuing, or not. If it is, then let’s take a serious stab at it. If it is not, then tell the Filipino people to forget it and let’s all move on. Ambiguity simply creates situations like the one we now find ourselves in where armed followers of the sultan have illegally entered Sabah to reclaim what they believe is rightfully theirs. Let us resolve this issue once and for all now and not kick this can down the road for our children and grandchildren to worry about. Published 3/5/2013