What You Should Know About the Sabah Conflict

Outside the Blue Mosque in Taguig City, Philippines, Kiram and his followers stage a protest against the Malaysian police who fired upon his other followers who occupied a village in Sabah. (Reuters)

The strange thing about the sudden and popular interest among Filipinos about the pathetic invasion of the Sultan of Sulu’s Royal Army (yes, Virginia, it does exist–some houses in Jolo display its flag) of a town in Sabah is how their patriotic passion stands on their almost neglible general knowledge of the area and its history.

Ownership is at the core of this small war. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, who is one of the many claimants of the Sulu Sultanate, goes back to history to argue his point when, in 1640, the Spanish colonial regime in Manila signed separate peace treaties with the Maguindanao and the Sulu Sultanates that included recognizing them as being independent states. 

Spain had no choice–it could not defeat these two sultanates, and if stability were to be achieved in the lowlands of the Visayas and Luzon, there had to be a way to stop Moro raids on these areas. On their part, the sultanates realized that Spain could not be easily dislodged from what was now becoming the Christianized zones of the archipelago and agreed to sign the treaties.

Almost a century later the Sulu Sultanate came to the rescue of the nearby Sultan of Brunei, who was facing a rebellion, and for his help was supposedly given North Borneo (today’s Sabah). This was a practice common among rulers of the various port “cities” of maritime Southeast Asia, the purpose of which was to enable them to expand their access over natural and human resources (slaves) that they then could trade with the others. 

By the 1800s, however, boundaries unilaterally set by the increasingly powerful European powers began to alter the make-up of the sultanates of maritime Southeast Asia. Great Britain and the Netherlands agreed to define their respective spheres of interests in 1824, prompting the Spanish in 1835, to rewrite the earlier treaty with the Sulu Sultanate and enhance their military alliance. Sulu was now under Spanish protection, and both regimes agreed to come to each other’s defense if attacked by outside powers. Note here that Spain continued to recognize Sulu as a distinct independent power.

The Sultanate of Sulu (Borneo Insider)

The Source of Contention

It was also no longer the only power in the region. The British North Borneo Company, a private corporation, seized upon an internal conflict inside the sultanate to force it, under the threat of unleashing the Royal Navy, to sign a treaty of commerce together with the Sultan of Brunei. A weakened Sulu Sultanate tried to mitigate the impact of British power by signing yet another treaty with Spain, this time agreeing to incorporate Sulu into the Spanish body politic. But by then Spain was already a weaker power and could only stand idly by when the British North Borneo Company consolidated its power by obtaining full sovereign control of north Borneo for a mere 5,300 ringgit ($5,000) and an annual fee of 5,300 Mexican pesos.

It was how this second agreement was translated that became the source of future contentions, including that of the present conflict involving the Sulu Royal Army. The English argued that this was a de facto ceding of territory in exchange for the annual subsidy. The Sultanate’s translation used a word that means “lease.”

From that time on there were repeated attempts by the Sultanate to remind the power outside its realm of the nature of this agreement, but the attempts by central authorities on the Philippine side to act in behalf of the Sultan never gained traction. 

The Americans who replaced the Spanish continued to remind the British of the real ownership of north Borneo but did little to move the appeal forward. Then in the post-colonial period, the Philippine government continued to question the legality of the agreement when the British added the area to the formal territory of the newly established Federation of Malaya. 

Critics of the Aquino government forget that if the Sultan of Sulu did recover Sabah, he and his family would not necessarily agree to reintegrate it to the Philippine territory.

The Sabah Claim

Most of the time, the Philippines used diplomatic channels to press its demand, but in the early 1970s, then-President Ferdinand Marcos tried to train a secret military unit to infiltrate Sabah. This failed, and Malaysia retaliated by arming the two Muslim armed separatist movements that fought the Philippine state. But once Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad and President Fidel V. Ramos agreed to put the “Sabah question” into the backburner and to collaborate instead in transforming this border zone into an economic growth center, Malaysian support for the Moro National Liberation Front and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front ended. 

The second attempt to pursue the issue militarily came three decades later, with the recent occupation by the Sulu Sultanate’s Royal Army of the Sabah town of Lahad Datu. This too failed, and has led to the death of 52 members of this hapless invasion force and eight Malaysian police officers.

Filipinos are so angry over the failure of the Aquino government to defend “national interests,” especially after being told that “Sabah is our territory” that even some of the calmest people I know back home are ready to take up arms and join the embattled royalists. In the print media and the cyber world, the general sentiment is–damn the Malaysians, damn President Aquino, let’s go help the old man reclaim what is his--and, by extension, ours!

Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III (AP)

Hypocritical Reactions

There is something funny and hypocritical about all this. For as late as 2005 (a good seven years ago), a survey of Filipino perceptions of Muslims conducted by the organizers of the Philippine Development Report gave this somber finding: “A majority of Filipinos (still) think that Muslims are probably more prone to run amok (55%) although probably not oppressive to women (59%). A plurality believes that Muslims are probably terrorist or extremist (47%) and that they probably consider themselves as Filipinos (49%). There are equal percentages (44%) of those who believe that Muslims probably secretly hate all non-Muslims and those who do not.” 

In short, up until the royal army’s failed foray (which reminds one oddly of the anti-Castro  “Bay of Pigs” invasion), a fair number of Filipinos did not give a hoot as to who lived in these “dark frontier zones” (or if they did, they simply classified them all as Muslims). But now that everyone seems to realize that these once despised “Muslims” are brothers (and sisters) after all, critics of the Aquino government forget the next obvious thing: that if the Sultan of Sulu did recover Sabah, he and his family would not necessarily agree to reintegrate it to the Philippine territory.

The Sultanate regards itself as a sovereign body that is older than the Philippine nation-state. It may have made compromises with the Spanish and the Americans in the distant past and recognized Manila’s authority, but it also–when opportunities allowed–would try to assert its own autonomy, if not its distinct pre-Philippine authority, and create its own, well, nation-state. 

As painful as this belated realization that the Philippines may after all own Sabah, the official boundaries have been set. And given how much political pragmatism has become the norm for conducting diplomatic relations among the member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Malaysia and the Philippines will most likely work closely to put an end to this small uprising. And ironically, the ones most enthusiastic to get this over with are the communities of the Sulu-Sabah zones who, for most part, just want the flourishing trade they have been involved in to return. 

The Joloanos (Tausogs) may epitomize the military prowess of Muslim communities (something repeated ad nauseum in Philippine cable news), but they too are one of the best traders and business people in a region that has been a commercial hub since time immemorial. 

(Readers who are interested in a more detailed timeline of events can check Manuel L. Quezon III’s annotated timeline at this website http://globalnation.inquirer.net/66281/north-borneo-sabah-an-annotated-timeline-1640s-present).

Dr. Patricio Abinales

Dr. Patricio Abinales

Dr. Patricio Abinales is professor of Asian Studies at University of Hawaii at Manoa and editor-at-large of Manila Review. He considers Mindanao home.