In just 10 days, the standoff in Sabah has spiraled from a firefight between Malaysian security forces and followers of the sultan of Sulu who landed in the village of Tanduao, Lahad Datu town, on Feb. 9, into a war of extermination mounted by both the Philippine and Malaysian governments, conspiring with each other, to evict the sultan’s men under siege in their enclave.
In their first encounter in the morning of Friday, 12 of the 235 men led by the brother of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III were killed when superior Malaysian forces attacked them.
The Filipinos sailed to Sabah from Tawi-Tawi island, in the Sulu Archipelago, to press the sultanate’s bid to reclaim its ancestral land in the former British North Borneo.
This is a curious conflict where the Philippine government has gone to war against its own citizens from the Muslim southern region, assisting Malaysia in its mailed-fist action to expel the sultan’s followers after they refused to heed pressure/ultimatum from Manila and Kuala Lumpur authorities to leave and return to the Sulu Archipelago or face dire consequences.
This Malaysian-Philippine collaboration—in which the Philippine government has played second fiddle and subservient to Kuala Lumpur—in the gang-up on the recalcitrant sultanate’s followers was clearly evident on Day One of the hostilities.
The first wire services and press reports on the shootout in Sabah on March 1 said that Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) spokesperson Raul Hernandez told reporters in a press briefing that Malaysian Ambassador Mohammad Zamri Mohammad Kassim met with Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario at 2 p.m. of that day to inform him that “the standoff has ended.”
The DFA apparently took this report on its face value. There were no attempts from the DFA to inquire whether the attack on the sultan’s men was carried out with maximum restraint.
Although details were to follow shortly, the DFA appeared overly anxious to see the end of the standoff. It was echoing the position of Malaysia, or acting as an extension of the Malaysian Embassy in Manila.
The Malaysians told the DFA they had resolved the standoff their own way—at the cost of 12 Filipino lives. The standoff turned into violence after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared that his patience had “run out” after the sultan’s men refused to obey demands for them to leave Sabah.
It was only later that President Aquino ordered an investigation to determine what really happened in Sabah in the face of conflicting reports from Malaysian authorities and the sultanate’s followers.
Apparently disturbed by the violent turn of events and its implications on Philippine-Malaysian relations and the administration’s initiative to set up a Bangsamoro region in Mindanao to end decades of Moro insurgency, the President held emergency meetings with senior Cabinet members to take steps to prevent the clashes in Sabah from further spreading.
Malaysia has acted as an intermediary to facilitate the sealing of the Compromise Framework Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
A spokesperson for the sultan of Sulu, Abraham Idjirani, denounced the raid on the group led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of Sultan Kiram, as a “massacre.” The “first shot was fired by the Malaysian commando forces,” according to Idjirani.
Before the clash, representatives of the sultan were on their way to the Malaysian Embassy for an “informal dialogue” with the Malaysian ambassador.” But reports of the clash in Tanduao came while the group was on the road. The sultan recalled the representatives “because the shooting had started.”
The Star newspaper of Malaysia reported that Prime Minister Najib had given security forces authority to take whatever action they thought necessary to end the standoff. Najib claimed that Agbimuddin’s group had ventured 1.5 kilometers from the area they had occupied.
Earlier, Najib warned Agbimuddin’s group to leave before the authorities took action. “Do not test our patience, our patience has reached the limit,” he said.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said the shootout began when the sultan’s followers fired at security forces as they were tightening their cordon around Tanduao.
“The intruders fired at us, then we returned fire,” he said. “As a result of the fire, two of my men died, three were injured and … 12 intruders died.”
Statement of capitulation
Agbimuddin told radio station dzBB in Manila that Malaysian police surrounding Tanduao opened fire at midmorning and his group fought back.
“They suddenly came in,” he said. “We fought back to defend ourselves.”
The threat of further bloodshed in Tanduao village—even the extermination of the sultan’s men still holed up there—loomed larger as Malaysia issued an ultimatum on Saturday that it would take “drastic action” against the sultan’s men.
President Aquino, as in the first shootout, poured oil on the fire, took the side of Malaysia and sent a message to the besieged group: “Surrender now, without conditions.”
The statement had two effects: It not only emboldened Malaysia to carry out its threat; it also made the sultan more defiant. Referring to the President’s statement, Sultan Jamalul said: “The only thing they know is surrender. Why should we surrender in our own home? They did nothing in their own home.”
Agbimuddin, the leader of the cornered men, sent a text message to the sultan, saying his remaining men (224) were “prepared to die.” The spokesperson for the sultanate said that Agbimuddin’s group went to Sabah to compel a peaceful resolution of the sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
The Malaysian prime minister told reporters that after talking with Mr. Aquino on Friday night, he decided to give Agbimmudin’s group two choices: “Surrender or face the action of our security forces.”
Succumbing to the Malaysian threat, the President, rather than trying to restrain the hands of the Malaysians from further mayhem, gave them clearance. He issued the statement of capitulation:
“To our citizens in Lahad Datu, from the very start, our objective has been to avoid the loss of lives and the shedding of blood. However, you did not join us in this objective. Because of the path you have taken, what we have been trying to avoid has come to pass. If you have grievances, the path you chose was wrong. The just, and indeed, the only correct thing for you to do is to surrender.”
With that the President has driven the last nail on the coffin of the Philippine claim to Sabah. What he didn’t say to the sultan’s men was: If you get slaughtered by the Malaysians, that’s your fault. Condolences.
The news was spotty at first. Toward noon of Friday, a report flashed on TV that said a firefight had erupted between the Malaysian security forces and the Kiram group in Sabah with minor casualties. Shortly later a correction was made that there was no firefight at all, the Malaysians had only fired warning shots. Still later, yet another correction was made that a firefight had indeed taken place with undetermined casualties. By nightfall, it was definite. The Malaysian security forces had stormed the Kiram group’s lair, killing 12 while suffering two casualties.
At the end of it all, I saw the Lapiang Malaya.
The Lapiang Malaya, for those who are not old enough to remember it, was a political-religious group that preached freedom for the poor along with the Second Coming of Christ. It contested the presidential elections in 1957, but its leader, Valentin de los Santos, expectedly lost.
Ten years later, in 1967, finding its dreams, or illusions, of achieving its goals thwarted by electoral politics, the group marched on Malacañang armed with bolos. It was blocked by heavily armed police. But believing in the rightness of its cause and the power of its amulets, the group charged at the defenders. It met with a hail of bullets which, alas, the group’s members proved only too vulnerable to. Some 33 of them died while 47 were wounded.
It was an event that began as farce and ended as tragedy. It shocked the nation, the Philippine Constabulary—and President Ferdinand Marcos—being blamed for excessive use of force. The furor eventually died down and was replaced by a general feeling of sadness and public wonderment about how people could be possessed by such a fantastical view of the world they would embark on a batty enterprise like this.
Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah does not owe to cultist stirrings and millenarian aspirations. Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah is more rooted, or so they think, in terra firma: on law and document, history and treaty. Arguably, the Kiram incursion into Sabah, with its more formidably armed component, poses a graver problem than did De los Santos’ bolo- and amulet-wielding ragtag band.
But for all that, it shares a great deal of the spirit of De los Santos’ deed. It had fringe written all over it. It had bizarre written all over it. It had deluded written all over it.
Certainly, it had futility and doom written all over it. What in God’s, or Allah’s name, did the Kiram group expect to happen from the decision to forcibly lay claim on Sabah? How in God’s, or Allah’s, name did the Kiram group expect it to end? That at the end of a long day it could pressure Malaysia to give up Sabah to them? That armed with the might of right and the right of might, they could force the Malaysian government to at least discuss terms with them? That as a result of their willingness to die to the last man for what they believed in, the Malaysian government would not in fact oblige them?
Last Friday night, AM radio had a slew of commentators who went to town lambasting government for the way it handled the Sabah crisis which resulted in this bloody pass. It was government’s cavalier attitude toward the Sultanate of Sulu, they said, that produced this perfectly preventable tragedy. Well, while I agree that government has its share of officials who are innately arrogant and dismissive, whose utterances subtract from the sum of human knowledge rather than add to it, or add to the problem rather than to the solution, the question remains: What could government have done to make things better?
If a group of Malaysians armed to the teeth suddenly materialized in some part of Sulu, claiming it in the name of the Muslim brotherhood, or the universal Islamic church, the ummah, that transcends national borders, how would we react? If a group of Malaysians armed with the Koran or some document from the first millennium after Christ, or after Mohammad, demanded that the Sultanate of Sulu proclaim solidarity with them as they have the Muslims of Sulu squarely behind them, how would we react?
Indeed, more to the point, if the Chinese armed with their claim on the whole of the South China Sea and the islands therein according to ancient maps suddenly occupied the whole of the Spratlys and demanded tong from merchant vessels for the use of the sea routes, how would we react? The only difference being that unlike the Malaysian government, we would be a lot more powerless to challenge it. But we would be exceptionally furious. And we could always express our anger and protestations, our ngitngit and himutok, in the most ardent ways.
Same question: How did the Kiram group expect the Malaysian government to react? How in fact did it expect the Philippine government, whom it had just put on the spot, to react? Give the group its heartfelt blessings and support?
People have been killed, Filipinos have been killed. That is a cause for monumental sorrow, that is a cause for monumental grieving, that is a cause for monumental bitterness. But you cannot blame anyone for it, you can only blame the people who plunged into this thoroughly reckless and muddled enterprise and caused this wasteful loss of lives. At the end of the day, all they’ve done is shoot themselves in the head. They’ve just doomed their cause forever. After this, no one will give the slightest thought to their claims to Sabah anymore: They’ve just killed it, as surely as they have 12 of their own.
At the end of the day too, after the weeping and gnashing of teeth over the dead, they will be forgotten. The way the Lapiang Malaya was forgotten, De los Santos himself was committed to a mental asylum where he was beaten to death. That is the way of tragic farces.
As violence spread in Sabah, President Aquino on Monday warned the conspirators in the intrusion of the followers of the sultan of Sulu into the eastern Malaysian state: “You will not succeed.”
In a televised address with officials of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), the President spoke of the alleged involvement of officials of the Arroyo administration in the conspiracy, but he indicated that evidence was still being gathered on the role of former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo.
Aquino said cases were “being built up” against the players.
But the family of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III said the government should show proof that there was a sinister intent behind their followers’ crossing into Sabah to stake their claim to the territory.
“All these are just allegations. Prove it. We challenge them to prove it,” Princess Jacel Kiram, daughter of the sultan, said at a news conference.
“They should prove their claim that we have conspirators. If we have conspirators, they are the people,” she said.
She reported fresh fighting in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town in Sabah where a group of sultanate followers led by her uncle Agbimuddin Kiram is cornered by Malaysian security forces.
Agbimuddin texted the sultan at about 4:20 p.m. Monday, reporting fighting between his group and Malaysian police, she said.
While warning the conspirators, President Aquino expressed concern about the safety of Agbimuddin and his armed followers, as well as the 800,000 Filipinos living and working in Sabah.
“We’re aware of the conspiracy that has led to this situation, a situation that has no immediate solution. We see some of them, while the others are lurking in the dark. The clan of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III can’t do this kind of move by themselves. It’s very noticeable that that there’s only one line coming from the critics, adding fire to a serious situation. They’ve worsened this issue, and they’re at it while hundreds of thousands of Filipinos face danger,” Aquino said.
They will pay
“To those people behind this, I’m telling you now: You will not succeed. Those who have committed a crime against the country will be called to account,” he said.
Former National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, former Tarlac Rep. Jose Cojuangco and his wife, Margarita, and Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari had been implicated as financiers of the Kirams’ “excursion” to Sabah, but they have strongly denied the allegations.
Responding to reporters’ questions later, the President indicated that the Kirams and the conspirators would face charges.
“Let’s start with this: Does the Constitution sanction any armed force beside the Armed Forces of the Philippines? Is there not a provision against armed groups? They are obviously by definition an armed group. They call themselves a particular name, and there is allegedly some connivance by certain members of the previous administration in the formation of this, which is in violation of the Constitution and various other laws of the land,” he said, spelling out the possible charges against the Kirams and the conspirators.
He said the Revised Penal Code also penalizes inciting to war. “When an armed group goes into an area administered by a different nation, can that not be considered an act of war by some of our citizens?” he said.
He added that the penal code also prescribes penalty for people who “incite others to war.”
“The (Department of Justice) is preparing the charges,” he said.
Is Arroyo involved?
Asked if the conspiracy led up to Arroyo, the President replied: “You’re asking for a conclusion that I wish I had right now. But again unless we have the evidence that can be brought before a court that will prove the case, I will not make an accusation.”
Aquino confirmed that there were intelligence reports as well as “persons of interest” pointing to the identity of the conspirators, but said the intelligence reports “do not provide evidence necessary for the courts.”
“Cases are being built up. Let’s emphasize this: Jamalul Kiram is sick, he needs dialysis and he is being assisted by the (Philippine Charity Sweepstakes Office). So even in terms of attending to his own health, he needs assistance. I’m told that renting a boat, a sufficiently large boat, to go to Sabah, costs about P100,000. There were two boats and one speedboat used by this group—so funds and food [were given to them],” he said.
When asked about Gonzales’ denial of reports naming him as instigator, Aquino said: “You know I won’t accuse anyone without any piece of evidence.”
As public concern grew over the fate of the armed Filipinos and their countrymen in Sabah following the spread of violence to other parts of the state over the weekend, Aquino said he was concerned about the safety of all Filipinos in Sabah.
“As President, the life not only of the group of Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram but also the welfare and safety of the estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah rest on my shoulders. Every life is important, and we have no other objective but to ensure the safety of our countrymen, whichever part of the world they are,” he said.
“Let’s be frank with one another: If the situation is reversed, and our own community is raided by any armed group, can we just sit still and keep quiet? Aren’t we going to ask help from the government, too?” he added.
“What’s sad is that a few people chose to make this happen, and put many Filipinos in danger. Nonetheless, we won’t lose strength to end this conflict at the soonest possible time,” the President said.
“It’s simple: This would end if the personalities involved become reasonable, especially those who think of themselves as true leaders,” he said.
Aquino reiterated his call to the Kirams: “It’s not reasonable to ask for understanding if your gun is pointed to the head of the other party. We can only start reasonable talk once you’re ready to become sober and sit down at the table with an open mind.”
Talk with Najib
Aquino confirmed that he had a phone conversation with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak at around 1 a.m. on Saturday.
“He told us that the situation has crossed the line. As to what happened [last Friday], negotiations were no longer possible because of the loss of life, especially on the part of the Malaysians. He said his countrymen were very angry,” he said.
Since the line had been crossed after weeks of appeal for the Kirams to stand down became futile, Najib authorized the security forces to end the standoff, Aquino said.
“On my part, I requested that our countrymen who are estimated to be 800,000 should not be affected, and we were given assurance that they will try to ensure this,” he said.
Aquino, however, said he did not give clearance to the Malaysians to go after Agbimuddin and his followers.
Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario flew to Kuala Lumpur Monday afternoon to discuss with Malaysian officials options to prevent further bloodshed in Sabah.
The Department of Foreign Affairs said Del Rosario would meet with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and “continue discussions on how to prevent further loss of lives and to appeal to the Malaysian authorities to exercise maximum tolerance in dealing with the remaining members of Agbimuddin’s group.
Aquino said that the trip of Foreign Secretary Del Rosario to Kuala Lumpur was aimed at “exploring possible other avenues.”
But the wife of the sultan, Princess Fatima Kiram, said only the intervention of the United Nations or another country could end the conflict in Sabah.
“This is honor above life. (Malacañang officials) are saying life is more important. But for us Tausug, honor is more important than life,” Fatima said.—With reports from Nikko Dizon and Tarra Quismundo
Agence France-Presse, Associated Press, The Star/Asia News Network
1:45 am | Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
KUALA LUMPUR—Malaysia on Monday sent hundreds of military troops to Sabah to help police neutralize armed followers of the sultan of Sulu who have killed eight police officers in the country’s bloodiest security crisis.
Twenty-seven people have reportedly been killed since fighting between the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III began in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town on March 1.
Of the dead, 19 were followers of the sultan who were killed in skirmishes with police that shocked Malaysians unaccustomed to such violence in their country.
The main group of the sultan’s followers comprising 200-odd men and women, including about 30 who are armed, is cornered by Malaysian security forces in a small area in Tanduao, where they landed on
Feb. 9 after crossing by sea from Tawi-Tawi in southern Philippines to stake the sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
It is Malaysia’s worst security breach in years and Prime Minister Najib Razak has authorized an investigation into reports that the political opposition is involved.
A similar investigation is going on in the Philippines, where the administration of President Aquino sees a conspiracy involving opponents of a peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that is in the final stages after the signing of a preliminary agreement last October.
Najib, who has vowed to root out the intruders, authorized a “doubling” of police and armed forces deployed in Sabah.
“An additional two Army battalions have been dispatched to Sabah,” Najib was quoted as saying by state news agency Bernama.
Public attention focused on Monday on how to minimize casualties while apprehending the Sulu sultan’s followers surrounded by Malaysian security forces as well as an undetermined number of other armed Filipinos suspected to be in two other districts of Sabah within 300 kilometers of Lahad Datu.
Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said Army reinforcements from other states in Malaysia would help bolster public confidence by patrolling various parts of the state’s eastern seaboard.
“The situation is under control now,” Hamza said. “There will be cooperation” between the military and the police, he said.
Hamza declined to elaborate on specific strategies or on a call by former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for lethal action.
“There is no way out other than launching a counterattack to eliminate” the intruders, Bernama quoted Mahathir as saying on Sunday. “Although many of them will be killed, this cannot be avoided because they had attacked Sabah, and not the other way around.”
Najib declared over the weekend that security forces were authorized to “take any action deemed necessary.”
The intruders, led by the Sulu sultan’s brother Agbimuddin, have rebuffed calls for them to leave, saying ownership documents from the late 1800s prove the territory is theirs.
It remains unclear whether the armed Filipinos who ambushed a police team in Semporna town on Saturday night are part of the Lahad Datu group.
The clash in Semporna, where five Malaysian policemen and two intruders were killed, and a police claim that they were pursuing yet another group of armed men in a nearby town has sparked fears of further infiltration by Filipinos from Sulu.
The exact identities of the armed men remains a mystery, but Malaysia’s military chief, Zulkifeli Zin, told a press conference in Sabah on Sunday that the intruders appeared to have combat experience.
Their “insurgency guerrilla technique is quite good,” he was quoted as saying.
Zulkifeli said Malaysia’s military and the police were adopting a cautious approach in their plan to resolve the standoff with Agbimuddin’s group in Tanduao.
He noted that Agbimuddin’s group had planned their location around the village in such a way that they would inflict casualties if Malaysian security forces enter the area.
“They are at the center and have people spread out, including snipers,” Zulkifeli said.
“They know we will suffer casualties if we go in as the area is open,” he said.
“They are under close surveillance by our special forces,” Zulkifeli said.
But he added that while Malaysia was determined to “bring this episode to a close” as soon as possible, any action would take a little more time.
Sabah ‘intrusion’ triggers political fight in Malaysia
By Allan Nawal
2:56 am | Tuesday, March 5th, 2013
DIGOS CITY—When Tawi-Tawi Rep. Nur Jaafar was interviewed by the Sabah-based Daily Express on Sunday, he warned that the Sabah “intrusion” by armed followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III was developing into a major political issue in Malaysia, which is gearing for general elections not later than June 27.
Media reports from Kuala Lumpur indicate that this has become a reality, with the ruling coalition Barisan Nasional (BN) and the opposition accusing each other of orchestrating the Sabah situation for political gains after Philippine intelligence sources said a Malaysian opposition stalwart allied with Anwar Ibrahim had met with Kiram days before the Sabah entry.
Progovernment TV3 and Utusan Malaysia even ran a commentary by an unidentified author, which listed “10 indications that Anwar Ibrahim had architected [sic] the land grab by the sultan of Sulu.” The article accused Anwar of being a “manipulator par excellence and so skilled that he convinced several hundred fighters from Philippines to hide out in Lahad Datu and die for his cause.”
In the early years of his political career, Anwar, then an official of the the United Malays National Organization (Umno), was being groomed by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad as his successor. Their relationship, however, eventually soured and Anwar was jailed on charges of sodomy.
Since then, Anwar has been on the forefront of the opposition, earning the ire of his former colleagues at Umno and their supporters.
The Bahasa daily Utusan Malaysia went even further when it printed a blog that claimed a “member of the Malaysian political opposition allied with Anwar Ibrahim” had met with Jamalul and promised the opposition’s support for his claim on Sabah.
TV3 used 30 minutes of its “Buletin Utama” program to discuss Anwar’s supposed links to the Lahad Datu “intrusion.” It also dedicated a similar period to demolish Tian Chua, vice president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), for claiming the intrusion was a political play by leaders of Umno, the dominant party in the BN.
Anwar, PKR head and representative of Permatang Pauh to the Malaysian Parliament, was quoted by The New Straits Times (NST) as saying he had asked his lawyers to study the possibility of suing the two media outfits.
“These are highly irresponsible statements. They are purely cheap political gimmicks to create uncertainties and to apportion the blame [on us], to deflect from the utter weakness and failure of the leadership in this country,” he said in the NST interview.
Anwar, in the succeeding days of the standoff, had repeatedly denied the claims and said Utusan was allowing itself to be used by Umno for its political gains. He said he never met with any member of the Kiram family or their emissaries.
“[And] even if I have met [them], what is the issue? Who in the government has not met Moro Islamic Liberation Front leader Al Haj Murad Ebrahim or (Moro National Liberation Front leader) Nur Misuari?” he asked in another interview printed by the Malaysia Today.
“What is important is: Was there any discussion or encouragement or tacit approval [from me] for the insurgency or the encroachment into our borders?” Anwar said.
In retaliation for dragging Anwar into the Sabah bloodbath, Tian was reported by the Borneo Post as having said that on the contrary, Umno orchestrated the gun battle “with armed intruders” in Lahad Datu.
Tian said it was a “planned conspiracy of the UMNO government to divert attention and intimidate the people,” especially in Sabah, which is fast becoming opposition territory.
The PKR is being helped in Sabah by another opposition leader, Jeffrey Kitingan, a brother of Prime Minister Najib Razak-ally Joseph Pairin Kitingan.
Azmin Ali, another party stalwart, was also quoted by Borneo Insider as saying “the allegations were made in an attempt to weaken the growing support of Sabahans for the opposition.”
He challenged Anwar’s accusers to “produce proof.”
“All these are baseless accusations and attempts to divert attention from the real issue, which is the people’s safety,” he said. “Malaysians wanted to know the prime minister’s and home minister’s explanation on their handling of the standoff.”
“We ask: Don’t shift the people’s attention, how the safety of our seas and territory can be breached,” Azmin said.
Najib, in a report carried by state media Bernama, trashed the allegations about Umno’s role in the Sabah crisis as “a despicable political game by the opposition to garner the people’s support in view of the approaching general election.”
“They (the opposition) are accusing the government of staging a drama. We (the government) did not do any such thing. We never politicize our security because it involves human lives,” Najib also told a news conference during a ceremony honoring as heroes the two Malaysian commandos killed in Lahad Datu on Friday.
Najib accused PKR politicians of being “merciless and had no regard for humanitarian values” as they were “prepared to commit despicable acts and tell lies, and they could not be accepted as leaders.”
“We must say that all the security forces would be defended because they are risking their lives. The nation’s fighters should be acclaimed, not humiliated and debunked. So, do not play politics on the question of security,” the prime minister said.
He disclosed that a joint investigation by the Malaysian intelligence agency and its Philippine counterpart had started on claims that the Sabah incident was instigated by some politicians.
Najib said he, too, was puzzled at the timing of the “intrusion” because it took place as Malaysia’s political atmosphere was heating up due to the general elections.
“We want to know more on the claim. President Aquino is also interested to know,” he said.
MANILA, Philippines—Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago says the sultanate of Sulu should first disclose its “true intentions” in its audacious attempt to retake Sabah—either to expand the territory of the Philippines or merely line the pockets of the royal family with money from higher compensation—before President Aquino can commit the country’s “meager” military resources to its territorial claim.
“I think the President’s priorities are correct in proceeding gingerly with the Sabah situation. This is a potentially explosive situation, we need it like we need a hole in the head,” Santiato said in a phone interview with the Inquirer on Sunday.
“The sultanate of Sulu must first answer the primordial question: For whom is it reclaiming Sabah? Is it for personal or family reasons or on behalf of all Filipinos?” she said.
“We must not take any military position in a boundary dispute between two states just because of one family which happens to be Filipino,” she said.
“I believe the [sultan] must stand down or he is on his own. He will have to answer for [the] consequences of his actions. We cannot harbor rogue individuals or this will be considered an act of provocation by Malaysia,” she said.
Santiago pointed out that the sultanate of Sulu took action “clearly” on its own without consulting or advising the President.
(Editor’s Note: Following are excerpts from a speech that Sen. Jovito R. Salonga delivered on March 30, 1963, by way of rebuttal to the speech of Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong berating the Philippine claim to North Borneo (Sabah), which was filed by President Diosdado Macapagal on June 22, 1962, followed by the London negotiations of January 1963. Salonga was with the team of Vice President Emmanuel Pelaez who headed the London negotiations on behalf of our government. The Inquirer is reprinting excerpts from Salonga’s speech to shed light on the Sabah issue.)
A few days ago, Sen. Lorenzo Sumulong spoke on the floor of the Senate to air his views on the Philippine claim to North Borneo. My first reaction was to keep my peace and observe this shocking spectacle in silence, particularly in the light of the request of the British panel during the London Conference that the documents and the records of the proceedings be considered confidential, until they could be declassified in the normal course of diplomatic procedure. In part, my reaction was dictated by the belief, so aptly expressed elsewhere, that the best way to answer a bad argument is to let it go on and that silence is the “unbearable repartee.”
But silence could be tortured out of context and construed by others, not familiar with the facts, as an implied admission of the weakness of the Philippine stand. And so, I decided to make this reply, fully aware that in an exchange such as this, considering that our claim is still pending and each side is feeling out the other’s legal position, none but our British friends and their successors may well profit.
The good senator, whose patriotism I do not propose to impugn, has had access to the confidential records and documents of the Department of Foreign Affairs. By his own admission, he attended closed-door hearings of the Senate committees on foreign relations and national defense, where crucial matters of national survival and security were taken up. He knows the classified, confidential nature of the records and documents bearing on the Philippine claim.
Senator Sumulong has now found it proper and imperative, if we take him literally, to ventilate his views berating the merit and validity of the Republic’s claim, accusing his own government of gross ignorance and holding in unbelievable disdain the Philippine position on the British-sponsored Malaysia plan. He has chosen to assault the Philippine position at a time when his own government, by virtue of the British request, may be said to be somewhat helpless in making, right in our own country, an adequate, fully documented defense of the Philippine stand. I trust our British friends, here and across the seas, will understand if, in defense of our position, we come pretty close to the area of danger.
The good senator tells us that in view of the “importance and magnitude” of the subject, he decided to wait “until all the relevant facts and information” were in, that he had made his own “studies and researches,” which on the basis of the press releases issued by his office, must have been quite massive. The morning papers last Monday (March 25) quoted the senator as having bewailed, in advance of his privilege speech, that “only one side of the problem has been presented so far,” (meaning the Philippine side) seemingly unaware, despite the depth and range of his studies, that in the world press, only the British side has been given the benefit of full and favorable publicity and that the Philippine side has been summarily dismissed, just as the senator dismisses it now with apparent contempt, as “shadowy,” “dubious” and “flimsy.” It may interest the good senator to know that his statements, particularly on the eve of the talks in London, consistently derogatory of the Philippine claim, were seized upon by the English press with great delight, as if to show to the Philippine panel how well informed the senator was. It is, of course, not the fault of the senator that the British, in an admirable show of unity, enjoyed and were immensely fascinated by his press releases and statements.
Frame of reference
But before I take up the senator’s arguments in detail, it may be well to set our frame of reference by restating the position of the Philippine government on the North Borneo claim.
Thousands of years ago, what is now known as the Philippines and what is known today as Borneo used to constitute a single historical, cultural, economic unit. Authoritative Western scientists have traced the land bridges that connected these two places. The inhabitants of the Philippines and Borneo come from the same racial stock, they have the same color, they have or used to have similar customs and traditions. Borneo is only 18 miles away from us today.
North Borneo, formerly known as Sabah, was originally ruled by the sultan of Brunei. In 1704, in gratitude for help extended to him by the sultan of Sulu in suppressing a revolt, the sultan of Brunei ceded North Borneo to the Sulu sultan.
Here, our claim really begins. Over the years, the various European countries, including Britain, Spain and the Netherlands, acknowledged the sultan of Sulu as the sovereign ruler of North Borneo. They entered into various treaty arrangements with him.
In 1878, a keen Austrian adventurer, by the name of Baron de Overbeck, having known that the sultan of Sulu was facing a life-and-death struggle with the Spanish forces in the Sulu Archipelago, went to Sulu, took advantage of the situation and persuaded the sultan of Sulu to lease to him, in consideration of a yearly rental of Malayan $5,000 (roughly equivalent to a meager US$1,600), the territory now in question. The contract of lease—and I call it so on the basis of British documents and records that cannot be disputed here or abroad—contains a technical description of the territory in terms of natural boundaries, thus:
“… all the territories and lands being tributary to us on the mainland of the island of Borneo commencing from the Pandassan River on the NW coast and extending along the whole east coast as far as the Sibuco River in the south and comprising, among others, the states of Peitan, Sugut, Bangaya, Labuk, Sandakan, Kinabatangan, Muniang and all the other territories and states to the southward thereof bordering on Darvel Bay and as far as the Sibuco River with all the islands within three marine leagues of the coast.”
Contract to Dent
Overbeck later sold out all his rights under the contract to Alfred Dent, an English merchant, who established a provisional association and later a company, known as the British North Borneo Company, which assumed all the rights and obligations under the 1878 contract. This company was awarded a Royal Charter in 1881. A protest against the grant of the charter was lodged by the Spanish and the Dutch governments and in reply, the British government clarified its position and stated in unmistakable language that “sovereignty remains with the sultan of Sulu” and that the company was merely an administering authority.
In 1946, the British North Borneo Company transferred all its rights and obligations to the British Crown. The Crown, on July 10, 1946—just six days after Philippine independence—asserted full sovereign rights over North Borneo, as of that date. Shortly thereafter former American Governor General Francis Burton Harrison, then special adviser to the Philippine government on foreign affairs, denounced the cession order as a unilateral act in violation of legal rights. In 1950, Congressman Macapagal—along with Congressmen Arsenio Lacson and Arturo Tolentino—sponsored a resolution urging the formal institution of the claim to North Borneo. Prolonged studies were in the meanwhile undertaken and in 1962 the House of Representatives, in rare unanimity, passed a resolution urging the President of the Philippines to recover North Borneo consistent with international law and procedure. Acting on this unanimous resolution and having acquired all the rights and interests of the sultanate of Sulu, the Republic of the Philippines, through the President, filed the claim to North Borneo.
Basis of PH claim
Our claim is mainly based on the following propositions: that Overbeck and Dent, not being sovereign entities nor representing sovereign entities, could not and did not acquire dominion and sovereignty over North Borneo; that on the basis of authoritative British and Spanish documents, the British North Borneo Company, a private trading concern to whom Dent transferred his rights, did not and could not acquire dominion and sovereignty over North Borneo; that their rights were as those indicated in the basic contract, namely, that of a lessee and a mere delegate; that in accordance with established precedents in international law, the assertion of sovereign rights by the British Crown in 1946, in complete disregard of the contract of 1878 and their solemn commitments, did not and cannot produce legal results in the form of a new tide.
(Full text of Salonga’s and Sumulong’s speeches are available at Inquirer.net.)
To understand (1) the claim of the Sultan of Sulu over Sabah, (2) the standoff in Lahad Datu town in Sabah, (3) the stand-down admonition of President Aquino directing the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III led by his brother Datu Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram to withdraw and return peacefully to the Philippines, and (4) the enforcement actions of the Malaysian authorities that sadly resulted in death and injury, I think it is best to begin by discussing the concepts of sovereignty and ownership.
Sovereignty is the perpetual and absolute power of a state (not of an individual) to command obedience within its territory. This power is manifested through the state’s constitution and laws, and is enforced by governmental agencies and officials. When needed, the state’s military and police forces can be called to back this enforcement.
Sovereignty has external and internal aspects, external being the state’s ability to act without foreign intervention. It is often equated with independence. Internal sovereignty refers to the power of the state to rule within its borders and to govern both citizens (at home and abroad) and aliens staying in its territory. In the exercise of internal sovereignty, it maintains peace and order, fixes the relationships of people, and governs the rights to own properties situated within its borders.
Ownership, on the other hand, has a limited scope. It generally refers to the right to control a thing (including land), especially its possession, use, disposition and recovery. Ownership rights, especially over land and natural resources, are controlled and regulated by the state.
Sultan’s claim: In brief, the Sultan of Sulu claims ownership, not sovereignty, over a huge tract of land called Sabah. He alleges that his forebears leased the property to the British North Borneo Company, which in turn ceded its leasehold rights to Malaysia. Up to now, rentals for the property are paid the sultan.
In 1963, after an alleged referendum showing that the residents did not want to be part of the Philippines or of the Sultanate of Sulu, Malaysia incorporated Sabah as part of its national territory. Since that time, Malaysia has exercised sovereignty over the area, keeping peace and order, regulating the relations among the people, and governing the ownership, possession and enjoyment of property rights.
Obviously, then, the sultan’s claim is subject to the sovereign power of Malaysia and Malaysian laws. The stealthy entry of the sultan’s followers into Sabah violated Malaysian immigration and other laws; hence, they could be held accountable by Malaysian authorities. Even assuming that as proof of ownership, rentals are being paid in perpetuity, the sultan, as lessor, cannot deprive Malaysia, as lessee, of its possessory rights by force and illegal entry.
Since the sultan and his followers are Filipino citizens, the Philippines started diplomatic initiatives with Malaysia to secure their safety and wellbeing, and to enable them to leave Sabah voluntarily and peacefully.
However, as such citizens, they may be held answerable, after the observance of due process, for violations of Philippine laws. The Department of Justice is reportedly poised to investigate them for “inciting to war, or giving motives for reprisals; illegal possession of firearms; illegal assembly” and other crimes.
If, say, a Malaysian sultan is granted ownership rights by a past colonizer of the Philippines (like Spain) over a vast tract of land in Mindanao, the armed followers of that Malaysian sultan cannot just cross Philippine borders and occupy such property without the permission of the Philippines, regardless of whether Malaysia or the sultan has pending claims of sovereignty or ownership. By parity of reasoning, the Philippine government, in the exercise of its sovereignty, can take immigration, ejectment and other enforcement actions.
Philippine claim: During the term of President Diosdado Macapagal—in the 1960s, at about the same time that Malaysia took over Sabah—the Philippines asserted a sovereign claim over the property, then known as North Borneo. Since then, however, the claim has largely remained dormant.
The Philippine Constitution “renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the land and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation, and amity with all nations.”
Moreover, the United Nations Charter (Art. 51) obligates its members, including the Philippines, to settle international disputes only by peaceful means—that is, by negotiation, good offices, enquiry, mediation, conciliation, arbitration, judicial settlement in the International Court of Justice, resort to regional agencies or arrangements, and other peaceful methods. The Philippines cannot employ war or other nonpeaceful ways to resolve the dispute.
To conclude, I believe the Philippines should continue pressing its sovereign claim via the peaceful methods I mentioned. Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Sulu should abandon nonlegal methods and respect the actual and existing sovereignty of Malaysia. If the sultan so desires, he may avail himself of the internal legal processes there to validate his ownership claims.
Should the Philippines succeed in its peaceful quest, then the sultan may continue his ownership claims in the Philippines pursuant to Philippine laws. This, I think, is the peaceful and legal way of settling the dispute.