Wednesday, February 27, 2013

The Sulu-Sabah Saga

Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, in the southern Philippines, is in Manila ailing and undergoing dialysis. Meanwhile hundreds of his followers are lying low in the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia. Having arrived there by swift boats, they intend to stay there for keeps, unless the sultan recalls them.

Sabah once clearly belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu. To the sultan and his followers, that has not changed. The government of Malaysia isn’t amused. In defense of its sovereignty over Sabah it would deport the “intruders” from Sulu, using armed force if needed.

It’s sad that the claim of the Sulu Sultanate to Sabah has come to this. A monkey wrench in the relations between the Philippines, of which Sulu is a province, and Malaysia, of which Sabah is a state. The butt of mindless assertions by grandstanding politicians, pundits and hecklers.

To me it’s sad that Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, is now an ailing, angry old man. I remember him as healthy, forbearing and in good humor. I talked with him for most of a day in 1988 — I’m sure it was 1988 because my son Jamaal was born early that year and Jamalul was pleased to have him as his namesake.

Jamalul confided that the lease money that Malaysia paid regularly was something like a curse: there wasn’t much of it and so many members of the royal clan claimed a share of it and there was no pleasing them. He said he was considering negotiating for a substantial lump sum that could make a difference to the lives of his followers and being done with the sultanate’s proprietary rights to Sabah. He said nothing about sovereignty rights.

I haven’t seen him since that interview. Since then he has changed his mind. He has every right to do that. I only hope he has not fallen prey to political interests seeking to disrupt the peace process brokered by Malaysia between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the government of the Philippines.

The Philippine claim to sovereignty over Sabah is no joke. It has a documented legal basis. In 1685 the Sultan of Brunei gifted sovereignty over Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu for the latter’s help in defeating what would have been a successful rebellion. In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu signed a document “leasing” Sabah to a British company for a sum to be paid in perpetuity. Over the years, the British government succeeded the company and was in turn succeeded by the Malaysian government as administrator to Sabah, which had meanwhile become a state of Malaysia.

According to Malaysia, the word “padjak” in the document meant “to cede,” and on that basis it exercised sovereignty over the territory. But it continues to respect the proprietary rights of the Sultan of Sulu over the territory; that’s why it keeps paying the Sultanate money that the latter, interpreting “padjak” differently, considers “rental” for the use of territory over which it had sovereignty. That “sovereignty” has been passed to the Philippine government.

The dispute has led to convulsions of history: a bungled Philippine plot to invade and annex Sabah, and a secessionist rebellion in Mindanao helped at its launching by Malaysia. Between the Philippine government and the secessionists, there have been peace talks and agreements, the latest having been brokered, ironically, by Malaysia — but the controversy survives.

I don’t know how the issue will be resolved. I trust the two governments will settle it through diplomacy or adjudication, while considering the wishes of all concerned, including the Sultan of Sulu and the people of Sabah — otherwise neither government deserves to be part of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations that calls itself a politico-security community.

Neither should ignore the Sultanate. It once helped shape the history of the region. It deserves some respect even today.

Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based writer with interests in literature, philosophy and foreign policy. He is also an English-language and writing consultant for the Indonesian government.

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