President-elect Rodrigo Duterte is set to reignite an old dispute with Malaysia by staking claim over Sabah or North Borneo through peaceful means this time.
Three years ago, Philippine’s Sulu sultanate had sent more than 200 heavily armed royal soldiers to Lahad Datu, Sabah, to take back their oil-rich land but the Malaysian government’s superior military assets and commandos drove them back.
Before the Lahad Datu battle, the sultanate failed to get the support of then Philippine President Benigno Aquino over its Sabah claim. As many as 56 royal militants and 10 Malaysian commandos died in the battle.
A source in Patikul said to Asia Times that when the proposed peace talks begin between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Duterte government, the legitimate heirs of the Sulu Sultanate should ideally be included in the discussions.
Supporters of the Sultanate say Duterte will soon be visiting Sulu province to meet with Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Nur Misuari.
Misuari has a pending arrest warrant for allegedly leading more than 400 MNLF rebels to Zamboanga City and waging a fierce battle with 4,000 Philippine soldiers in 2013.
The MNLF, which is based in Sulu, too is considering to pursue the Sabah claim. It signed a peace agreement with the Philippine government in 1996 but revived their separatism ideology when the government started negotiating with the MILF, a breakaway faction of the MNLF.
Yasay’s choice seen as a strategic move
Duterte plans to appoint international law expert Perfecto Yasay as the secretary of the department of foreign affairs. Analysts see this as a strategic move to claim Sabah because of Yasay ‘s strong background in foreign policy and international law. He was among the first few cabinet members who Duterte named soon after the presidential election results started coming.
Professor Jose Marie Bue, head of the Journalism Department of Western Mindanao State University, said to Asia Times: “Yasay will be able to articulate the position of the Philippines in the Sabah claim issue once he sits down.”
Bue was formerly president of the Zamboanga Press Club who forged a city sisterhood agreement with the Sandakan Press Association in Sabah in 1997. Zamboanga and Sandakan are sister cities in the ASEAN community.
Malaysia’s strong response
The Malaysia government is not taking Duterte’s statement on Sabah lightly.
According to Diplomat, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said his country would “defend every inch of Sabah’s sovereignty.”
He said Duterte, instead of making provocative remarks on Sabah, should use his time productively to help end insurgencies in Southern Philippines.
The Malaysia government was actively involved in brokering peace between the Philippine government and the MILF.
The Sultanate of Sulu had claimed Sabah centuries before the Philippines was discovered. Kuala Lumpur still remits payments to the heirs of the sultanate.
During the British occupation of the place, the British North Borneo Company took the eastern part of Sabah, which was then under the jurisdiction of Sulu Sultanate, to operate its business. In 1963, the company returned North Borneo (now Sabah) to the Malaysian government instead of to the Sultanate.
Thus, the sultanate continue to press for its legitimate ownership. In February this year, Phugdalun Kiram II was installed as the 35th “sultan” of Sulu and North Borneo.
While the Sultanate of Sulu insists on ownership of Sabah, the Malaysia government is not going to let the land go since it has huge contributions to their national economic production.
According to Facts Global Energy, Sabah possess an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and contributes 25% of Malaysia’s oil and gas production.
Noel Tarrazona is a Vancouver-based freelance journalist and a senior analyst of wikistrat.