It is said that sovereignty lies at the forefront of every nation’s identity. Everything that is within the borders defined by the state’s constitution is part of their heritage, it is their patrimony which they are ordained to defend because they have sovereignty, or the moral responsibility, over this domain. In failing to safeguard their territory, the nation does not exercise their sovereignty and this is synonymous to losing their identity as a people. The cover of the book “Leviathan” by the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes depicts a giant, wearing a chain-mail armor made of individual people holding a giant sword and a crosier. The logic of this illustration is to depict his concept of sovereignty: the giant is the state, and is composed of a number of individuals (the armor) and the state has the moral obligation of ruling (the crosier) and defending (the sword) these individuals.
Many conflicts in history are sparked by a disagreement over sovereignty, and rightly so. If all diplomatic options are exhausted then resorting to combat is necessary. But flashback to the early years of your education, to your kindergarten years, we learned that although sharing is important we cannot take what is not ours without permission from its’ rightful owner. So in essence, we have exercised sovereignty at a personal level in our childhood.
In the context of the latest diplomatic headache that has hit the Philippines recently, the Sabah conflict, we see a very complex and sensitive issue that may take more than the United Nations Convention on the Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS) or any other tribunal sponsored by the international community to settle. Yet, for some strange reason we have several ‘domestic experts’ who have thrown their foregone conclusions into the matter already. The issue of the sovereignty over Sabah has been going on for decades but public awareness over the issue has grown recently after the incursions of Jamalul Kiram III, the Sultan of the Philippine island of Sulu and his band of followers; and although the Philippines may have a claim over Eastern Borneo, there are a number of reasons why they should practice restraint in dealing with this subject.
On the 11th of February this year, several waves of hostile forces landed in the shores of Lahad Datu in Sabah, Borneo. They numbered to 235 men with around 80-100 armed, most if not all of these individuals are affiliated to the Moro National Liberation Front, the guerrilla group that has settled for a peace agreement with the Philippine government. The men proclaimed themselves to be the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” and were sent by Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants to the title of “Sultan of Sulu”. They had come from Simunul Island, from the Philippines and declared they were to assert their claims over the disputed territory of Sabah.
The incident came out of the blue, particularly as the Sabah dispute had long been dormant and was unheard of among Filipinos prior to the February 11 foray. But while it was unknown beforehand, it was not long before the Sulu crusaders garnered support from Filipinos for their struggle. Abruptly, an army of sympathizers crying patriotism began to flood both the internet as well as the streets of Makati along the Malaysian embassy calling for the return of Sabah to the Philippines.
While it is wrong to say that all of these activists are merely centered on their prejudices and biased opinions, the notion that most of them are misinformed is not far from the truth.
To understand the Sabah issue, one needs to dig deep into historical information, in fact all the way back to the 7th century and realize that the first rulers of Sabah, then called Northern Borneo, was the Sultan of Brunei. Quite amusing to be believe in, Brunei plunged into a civil war in 1660 because of the result of a cockfight. Two Bruneian sultans clashed, with one side being aided by the forces of the Sultan of Sulu. The combined armies of Sulu and Sultan Muhyiddin were the victors and as a sign of gratitude, the latter ceded control of North Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu.
When the British Empire came to the picture in the 18th century, the Sultan of Sulu allowed a trading post ran by the British East India Company to be set up in North Borneo. After a series of further negotiations, the entire North Borneo territory was leased to the British and came to be known as the British North Borneo Company with Kudat as its capital city. During the Spanish era Philippines, Spain tried several times to conquer Sulu but failed particularly as the Sultanate enjoyed British protection. So finally, in 1885 the Madrid Protocol was signed just thirteen years before Philippine independence. The United Kingdom, Germany and Spain signed an agreement recognizing Spanish control of the Philippines as well as the Sulu archipelago as long as Spain does not claim North Borneo, which was virtually property of the Sultan of Sulu but was controlled and protected by the British.
At this time, Sulu was a de facto Philippine territory but was not governed directly by the Spanish-Philippine government. It was the Americans during their colonial era, who successfully brought the Sulu archipelago into the Philippine fold in 1915, when Governor Frank Carpenter signed an agreement with then Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram II relinquishing the latter’s executive powers over Sulu in exchange for land, a settlement fee and recognition as a religious figurehead over the islands. The agreement only covered the Sulu archipelago, as North Borneo or Sabah was already leased to the British.
Knowing all this, can we confidently say that Sabah was ever ours? Not even when the Spanish ceded control over the Philippines to the Americans in 1898 was Sabah our territory. Did the masses who protested in front of the Malaysian embassy know this? Do the people who suddenly became historical experts even know that Sabah was originally a Bruneian state? Judging by how loud they are, I hope they do.
The unfortunate reality is that, throughout modern history the Philippines has given up its claims over Sabah and then claimed it again, in that same pattern over and over. For example, the Spanish relinquished their claims over Sabah during the Madrid Protocol, but in the 1960s President Diosdado Macapagal protested the inclusion of Sabah in the Federation of Malaya, citing that the territory is the sovereign property of the Sultanate of Sulu, in turn the Philippines. Then, in 1977 Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos focused his campaign on stemming the advance of Communism in Asia through SEATO, the regional version of NATO. To do so, he wanted a united South-East Asian front and gave up Philippine claim over Sabah to reestablish military ties with Malaysia.
If we truly believe Sabah is ours, why would our position change over time? If our convictions are based on interests rather than principles, we might as well forget about challenging Malaysia before an international tribunal; we will only lose face. Looking back at this trend which Philippines claim Sabah to be theirs, we only look like kids who are unsure of what they truly want. How can the international community believe Sabah is the Philippines’ sovereign heritage when us Filipinos can’t even believe that ourselves?
At a time when territory we already have sovereignty over is being threatened, we do not need another territorial dispute in our hands. Not solely because our armed forces are too feeble to even protect what’s already ours, but also because there are a handful of other problems our government needs to focus their efforts on. Make no mistake about it, regardless of the strength of our military or the other issues about, we should never fail to protect our territory and what is ours. But here’s the golden question: can we really claim Sabah to be ours?
Looking back to history, Sabah never truly became a part of the Philippine republic, but rather the inherited domain of the Sultanate of Sulu. Our government never spent a single centavo of the hardworking Filipino taxpayer’s money to contribute to the economic and social development of the people of Sabah. We do not share the same culture, the people of Sabah do no speak our language nor hold our passports.
Flash forward to the present and we see that the people who are fighting to reclaim it are ethnic Tausugs and the Moros, the groups that once fought our government seeking for their independence, because to them they are a unique people, they are said to be of a different culture and heritage. But now that they have entered a war with the Federation of Malaysia, where they are severely outgunned they are suddenly seeking the help of the Philippine’s government and proclaim themselves to be Filipinos.
It is in doubt as to what Philippine aid for the Moros will bring in the Filipino’s favor. If the country successfully reclaims Sabah from Malaysia, will it become a Filipino province or will it just be another part of the Bangsamoro domain which they are asking independence for? If it is the latter, it seems to be a pointless pursuit since we pour our own resources and our own soldiers are being sacrificed in exchange for a people who do not even adhere to our constitution and consider themselves one with the Filipino.
The centuries-old dispute over Sabah is one that belongs to Malaysia and the Sultanate of Sulu, because quite frankly Sabah is the heritage of the people of Sulu and not the Filipinos. The Philippine government has the right behavior of distancing themselves from the situation since it is certainly not our business. The incumbent president’s mother, the late former President Corazon Aquino, had the right stand in the issue when it was brought up during her tenure as head-of-state: she encouraged all the claimants of Sabah to stand before the International tribunal and let them decide the best solution. She encouraged diplomacy, which in this century should be the primary means of settling a dispute among entities.
The incursion of the Sultan’s men into Sabah is nothing but sheer barbarism and is something you would see during the Middle Ages, not in the 21st century. As I’ve said, sovereignty is the most important aspect of being a nation and this is something the Moros should pursue if they truly believe Sabah is their homeland. It would be nice if our country had the rights to Sabah, for the parts of Northern Borneo are truly resource-rich and would a boost to our economy; but taking something that is not ours is unacceptable and unjust. If we do that, then who are we to protest China’s claim of Palawan? It is the same concept.
Since the Sultanate of Sulu is now a part of the Philippines and the men who intruded Malaysian borders are de facto Filipinos, the government does have a right to get involved in the issue and they are: the administration of Noynoy Aquino has sent the Navy to stop further incursions of Moro fighters into Malaysia and the transport of Filipino evacuees from Sabah. This is what the Philippines should be concerned for and not the ownership of Sabah; leave that to the Moros, the people who truly have a claim over the islands. The sad reality is that, every other Filipino suddenly becomes an activist when he or she tunes in to the mainstream news. Always remember, the news report what is happening today but only gives a brief insight into the events of the past. It is a good suggestion to read your history first before claiming to be experts on an issue.
To the brave Moro fighters who have started their campaign to regain Sabah, I give my best to all of you and my hope is that no further bloodshed takes place. But I beg you, do not drag the Philippines into this as we already have enough problems as it is. This is a matter of defending your heritage and not ours, this is your business. May this centuries-old dispute finally be resolved in the near future and may your people finally rest in a homeland you can call your own.