On the Philippines’ Claim to Sabah
Posted by butalidnl on 22 April 2010
The Philippines claim to Sabah seems to be picking up support again. Lately, President Macapagal-Arroyo hosted a meeting with the various heirs to the Sulu Sultanate in order to discuss the Sabah claim. And there seem to be groups in the web which advocate pursuing this claim.
Well, I am a Filipino; but I do not advocate the Philippines claiming Sabah as part of our country.
Let me explain.
The basis of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah is that the Sulu Sultanate owns this land, which was merely leased to the British East India Company in 1878. Let us take a look at this agreement, when it defined what exactly was being leased:
“Pandasan River on the east, and thence along the whole east coast as far as Sibuku on the South, and including all territories, on the Pandasan River and in the coastal area, known as Paitan, Sugut, Banggai, Labuk, Sandakan, China-Batangan, Murniang and all other territories and coastal lands to the south, bordering on Darvel Bay and as far as the Sibuku River, together with all the lands which lie within nine miles from the coast…” from manilabaywatch
Well, I looked it up. The Pandasan River is just to the west of the northernmost point of Sabah, and the Sibuku River is the boundary between Indonesia and Malaysia. Thus, the area covered is roughly the eastern coast of Sabah, and extends up to 9 miles inland.
This is less than half of present-day Sabah. Worse (for many people, at least), all the oil and natural gas reserves are on the WEST coast, where Kota Kinabalu, Labuan etc are. So, for Philippine politicians who think that they are claiming an oil-rich land, I’m sorry to say that it is not true – the Sabah they are claiming has no oil at all!
Sulu Sultanate’s Property
And then comes the question of whether Sabah (which I use here to refer to the Eastern Part of Sabah which was part of Sulu) belongs to the Philippines or just merely to the Sulu Sultanate. Sulu was incorporated into the Philippines on the basis of the Treaty of Paris of 1898. I cannot find any piece of paper that says that the Sulu Sultanate itself (which included Sabah) became part of the Philippines. Thus, the Sultanate, by virtue of a treaty of which it had no part in drawing up, got split – Sulu went to the Philippines, and Sabah went elsewhere.
It is probably for this reason that to this day, Malaysia continues to pay the Sulu Sultanate the “rent” (equivalent to 5000 Malayan dollars). The Sultanate continues to “own” Sabah, and its rights to it are upheld by Malaysian practice; but this does not mean that the Philippines inherited this right. Of course, normally, when Sulu became part of the Philippines, it would mean that everything the Sultanate owns became part of the Philippines. But in the case of Sulu, its lands were divided arbitrarily by those who wrote the Treaty of Paris; so it’s not the Sulu Sultanate’s fault that its lands have been split up.
During the term of Diosdado Macapagal, the heirs to the Sulu Sultanate authorized the Philippine government to pursue the claim to Sabah. But this authorization has since then been withdrawn; and the present government tried, in vain, to get authorized again. So, without this authorization from the Sulu Sultanate’s heirs, the Philippine government has nothing to pursue the claim with.
And then there is the question of whether the Sulu Sultanate still exists. After all, if it no longer exists, then there is no more claim of ownership of Sabah. I think that the Sulu Sultanate’s heirs continue with the myth of the Sultanate, in order to continue receiving their “rent” (or even to ask for more) from Malaysia, and also so that the Philippine government will continue to recognize the Sultanate’s existence.
It is MILF policy to work for Moro autonomy in places where Moros are now the majority. They don’t want to pursue claims to lands where Moros historically were the majority (which will be a very big chunk of Mindanao, and even Sabah). Besides, the MILF is not eager to recognize or raise the status of the Sulu Sultanate’s heirs – to them the Sultanate is a feudal institution that they would rather not deal with.
If the MILF gets the autonomy that it is fighting for, the issue of Sabah will probably also go away.
Regional Cooperation and Malaysia
And there is of course the point that Sabah is now an integral part of Malaysia. Pursuing the Sabah claim would mean conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia. This is not good, to say the least. Especially since Malaysia seems to be doing a good job at ruling Sabah.
Philippines-Malaysia border problems are lessened by increased barter trading, and of course lax border crossing rules. Now, Tausugs from Sulu and Sabah could behave, more or less, as if they were in one country. Increased cooperation between the two countries would be good for development at both sides of the border.
All in all, I think that the “Sabah question” should be laid to rest. There is not much to gain for the effort, and the basis for the claim is getting more and more vague as time passes.