We own Sabah, but… TMT

We own Sabah, but… Featured

THE West Philippines Sea (WPS) was dragged into center stage with the stunning speech of President Rodrigo Duterte before the United Nations General Assembly resurrecting the 2016 arbitral award that he unilaterally set aside while trying to extract from Chinese President Xi Jinping much-needed resources for his Build, Build, Build infrastructure program. It is now apparent that his gambit failed. That speech sends a message to China in no uncertain terms, of the primacy of the rule of law. But the WPS is not the only international issue that involves Philippine territorial claims. One such predicament, the Sabah question, has been festering, striking at the gut of our nationhood even before we were a formally structured country. Each past Philippine administration has tried to pass this on to subsequent regimes unable to provide solutions or too politically complicated to handle.

Sulu sultanate and Sabah
The now defunct Sulu sultanate are a collection of provinces that are now part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). But its claim to Sabah, transferred constitutionally to the Philippine Republic, is legitimate. As a backgrounder, in the 17th and 18th centuries, the Sultan of Brunei who owned a large part of Borneo gave a chunk of this territory to the Sultan of Sulu, who in turn gave part of this to another Sultan, eventually passing this on to the Dutch — becoming part of Indonesia. What was left of the territory still owned by the Sulu Sultan, known as Sabah, was leased to the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) in 1878. An annual lease was paid to the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs at an annual rate of 5,000 Malaysian dollars, later increased to 5,300 Malaysian dollars.

Complications started long before World War 2 when three colonial powers, the British, the Dutch and Spain, began to shed their colonies in the Far East and Southeast Asia, allowing them the seeds of self-government. Indonesia emerged from the Dutch holdings, Malaya (later the federation of Malaysia) evolved from British tutelage and Spain had to cede Filipinas to the new kid on the block, the United States, when the former lost the Spanish-American war.

Annexation by Malaysia
Controversy arose when Sabah, under lease to BNBC, a private company, was given British crown colony status in 1946 after WW2. After the British let go of its colonies in Southeast Asia, Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak and Sabah in Borneo joined the Malaysian Federation when it was constituted in 1963. But even before Malaysia incorporated Sabah into its federation, President Diosdado Macapagal’s administration formally revived the Philippines’ longstanding claim to the territory (the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu had ceded full sovereignty, title and dominion over Sabah to the Philippine Republic). It was unsuccessful as Malaysia declared it as a “non-issue.”

“Malaysia cited the Oct. 23, 2001 decision of the International Court of Justice on a case where the Philippines asked the tribunal to intervene on the matter. In that case, Judge Thomas Franck offered the opinion that Manila’s historical claim to Sabah is not sustainable, especially after people in the disputed area (Sabah) exercised their right to self-determination in accordance with international law.” (The Manila Times, JJ Ismael, Aug. 30, 2020)

The Philippine position is unequivocal, that we never relinquished our sovereignty. Upon the “annexation” of Sabah by Malaysia, annual rent payments continued — stopping only when the Sulu Sultan Esmail Kiram asked for an increase in the lease payments and when the Sabah territorial issue was raised by the Philippine government.

Autonomous initiatives
Unlike the WPS problems with China where the arbitral award bestowed legitimacy to our claims, we never had a clearly similar decision handed down over our Sabah claim. But what separates the two issues is that with the latter, we resorted to unilateral actions with unexpected consequences. President Marcos in 1967 decided to wrest Sabah from Malaysia by stealth, initiating a clandestine operation called “Operation Merdeka.” The concept was to destabilize Sabah, fomenting an uprising from within, principally among the large community of Filipino Tausug and Sama clans living there, persuading them to secede. The ensuing unrest would then give the Philippines the pretext to intervene. The chances of success would rest on two assumptions: Sabah was a newly structured political unit and incorporated into a still weak Malaysian federation; and the Filipino community that Marcos was confident could be persuaded to support Philippine initiatives.

A Filipino commando unit code-named “Jabidah” was trained to infiltrate and destabilize Sabah. From Sulu, young Muslims were recruited and trained in Simunul in Tawi-tawi. Such well laid plans for the Philippines’ first-ever unilateral initiative at solving an international conflict began to fall apart from within the Philippines itself with deadly political repercussions.

Rumors began to leak in the Manila media of a massacre of a group of young Muslims in Corregidor (where the recruits had been transferred from Simunul). Marcos did try to hide Operation Merdeka from the public, but the political opposition then blew the whole thing out in the open. Reportedly these recruits were killed for various reasons: from the recruits refusing to continue their training upon discovery of the real reasons for it; to their resort to mutiny because of the poor living conditions and delay or non-payment of allowances.

A feeding frenzy ensued in the media, producing a cascade of political dominos swamping the Marcos regime and forcing Marcos to shelve what could have been the best alternative for a final solution to the Sabah question in the Philippines’ favor. The Filipino Muslim communities were in an uproar over this reported massacre of their young. Cotabato political leaders joined Datu Udtog Matalam in the Muslim Independence Movement. Libya’s Muammar Gaddhafi, one of our major oil suppliers, expressed concern. And there was a general noise from Muslim countries in the Middle East. With all these plus the left’s growing communist insurgency, Marcos declared martial law in September of 1972. And the shit hit the fan!

Fake news
It turned out that there may not have been a “Jabidah Massacre” after all. It could have been an elaborate hoax. Tomes have been written since then arguing both sides (TMT, Tiglao, March 19, 2018; Marites Dañguilan Vitug and Glenda M. Gloria, Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, 2000).

But the damage had been done. Deception or not, the whole affair given wide latitude in media, awakened the long dormant but simmering anger on the disparities between the minority Muslim and majority Christians — igniting the Moro insurgency. This found articulation in the formation of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), subsequently the Mindanao Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and, eventually, BARMM. The creation of the latter may be a blessing in disguise as it gave impetus for our minority Muslim group’s yearning for the creation of their “bangsa” through self-determination while its umbilical cord is still tied to one Filipino nation. This could be the template for empowering the regions outside the purview of our highly centralized government — a longing for decentralized structure towards an eventual federal system of government.

But the Sabah question remains unresolved. This government, its hands tied down bythe slow pace of justice, may have to pass this on to the next administration, ad infinitum. But under the Constitution, Sabah is ours. We can take it through the exigencies of international law. Or by other means!

(To be continued)000
Read 309 times Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2020 12:02
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