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N ANOTHER David and Goliath move, a hundred armed Tausugs, led by
Rajah Mudah (crown prince) Agbimuddin Kiram are in Lahad Datu, Sabah and
have captured the attention of the world to the sovereign and
proprietary claims of the Sulu sultanate over Sabah. Datu Agbimuddin and
the brother of the Sulu sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, have stated that
they are in Lahad Datu on a visit of their “homeland.” Since the
sultanate is now part of the Philippines, the sovereign rights over
Sabah have therefore been assumed by the Philippine government.
Left unresolved, the standoff in Sabah can escalate into an
international incident that could create tension between Malaysia and
the Philippines. Worse, there may be vested interests that will fuel an
escalation into conflict. For instance, how true are the rumors from
Malaysia that this incident may be driven by local politicians out to
destabilize the ruling party, UMNO, by creating fear among the Sabahans?
After all, the Malaysian government, under UMNO leaders, have been
fully supporting the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation
Front. News reports from Malaysia surmise that although Prime Minister
Najib Razak is popular, the UMNO may be losing support. If this trend
continues, then the opposition led by Datuk Anwar Ibrahim may have a
stronger hand in challenging the UMNO in the June elections.
The Moro National Liberation Front, under chairman Nur Misuari, has
been meeting in Zamboanga City since Wednesday about the situation. I
have been informed that the discussions, which involve Muslim religious
leaders from the islands, have leaders demanding support for the
followers of the Sultan while calling for a peaceful resolution of the
With the Philippine government engaged in finalizing the peace
agreement with the MILF, supported by the Malaysian government as
facilitator, the impasse needs to be resolved peacefully. It is
unfortunate that the government, under then President Gloria
Macapagal-Arroyo, did not consider the Sabah claim as a major issue that
could undermine the effectiveness of Malaysia as facilitator. This, in
spite of statements issued by Moro leaders in 2001 that questioned the
choice of Malaysia as facilitator amid the Sabah claim.
However, the Malaysian government has been effective in facilitating
the GPH-MILF peace process since 2001 as well as an ally for security
and development. It is therefore in the interest of all concerned that
the Sabah stalemate be quickly and peacefully resolved. This close to
the last stage of the peace process, we cannot afford a conflagration
that could bring us all back to square 1.
Allow me to provide a background on the Sabah issue so that readers
may understand the complexity of the situation. The government has been
pursuing its claim over Sabah since the administration of President
Diosdado Macapagal. The claim emanates from the Sulu sultanate’s
sovereign rights over Sabah, which was turned over to the (Philippine)
government. The proprietary claim of the heirs to Sabah, however,
originates from the decision of a British court when Malaysia was still
under British rule.
THE SULU SULTANATE ACQUIRES SABAH
The Genealogy of the Sulu Royal Families, written by Sururul-Ain
Ututalum (descendant of Dayang-Dayang Hadja Piandao and, therefore, an
heir to Sabah) and Abdul-Karim Hedjazi, traced the close relationship
between the royals of Brunei and Sulu.
In the 1500s, Brunei Sultan
Bolkiah was married to Sulu Princess Putri Laila, granddaughter of
Shariful Hashim, first Sultan of Sulu. In the late 1600s, when Sultan
Muaddin of Brunei was threatened by rebellion, he turned to his kin in
Sulu for help. The rebellion was quelled.
As a reward, the Brunei sultan
gave resource-rich Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu. The property includes
the “mainland of the island of Borneo commencing from the Pandassan
River on the north-west coast and extending along the whole east coast
as far as the Sibuco River in the south and comprising amongst other the
States of Paitan, Sugut, Bangaya, Labuk, Sandakan, Kina Batangan,
Mumiang, 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.”
The territory is
defined in the agreement.
SABAH BECOMES PART OF MALAYSIA
In 1763, Sultan Azimuddin signed a treaty allowing the British East
Indies Co. to use Sabah and other territories. Tensions later developed
between the sultan and the company, which prevented the effective
implementation of the treaty until 1878. At this time, Baron Von
Overbeck of the British East India Trading Co. entered into a lease
agreement or padjak with Sultan Jamalul Alam. This company was later
absorbed by the British North Borneo Co. which, in 1946, transferred
sovereign rights over Sabah to Britain. When the Federation of Malaya
was granted its independence from Britain in 1963, Sabah was one of the
territories turned over to the newly established Malaysia.
SOURCE OF DISPUTE
The dispute revolves around the meaning of the term padjak. The
Tausug padjak means lease whereas the British version used the term to
mean “grant” or “cede.” Thus, the sultan’s heirs maintain that Sabah was
merely leased to the company while Malaysia states that the Philippines
has no claim because Sabah had been sold to British East India Trading.
The Malaysian government continues to pay lease money owed by British
North Borneo to the descendants of the sultan to this day. The
Malaysian government pays RM5,300 per year as rental for Sabah to the
heirs since the formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963.
Today, the sum of RM5,300 — less than ₱75,000 — as annual rental
barely covers the monthly rent of a house in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The
heirs, on their own, have attempted to renegotiate the terms of the
padjak with the Malaysian government.
In 1996, Princess Denchurai Kiram, daughter of Princess Tarhata Kiram
and administrator of her estate, wrote then Prime Minister Mahathir to
raise the rental to $1,000,000. She also stated that she and the other
heirs were willing to renounce the claim if Kuala Lumpurt will provide a
fair settlement. The letter was ignored by Mr. Mahathir.
In June 2010, the Sulu provincial board passed a resolution
supporting the demand of the heirs to increase the yearly payment to at
least $500 million.
Weeks earlier, Mr. Misuari issued a statement calling the attention
of Malaysia to settle the Sabah issue. Misuari’s first wife, the late
Desdemona Tan, and present wife Ruayda, are heirs to Sabah since they
are descendants of Dayang-Dayang (Queen) Hadja Piandao, who was
acknowledged to have 3/8 share of Sabah.
In January 2001, Sultan Esmail Kiram II, the brother of Jamalul III,
also wrote Mr. Mahathir, this time through President Gloria Macapagal
Arroyo. Princess Denchurain’s daughter, Princess Tajmahal, was a
co-signatory. According to reports, their demand was for $855 million.
The late Ambassador Abraham Rasul, wazir or prime minister to Sultan
Esmail Kiram (and later wazir to Sultan Mahakuttah, son of Esmail), had
been authorized by the sultan to discuss the pursuit of the Sabah claim
with Mr. Macapagal and, later, President Ferdinand Marcos. (Ambassador
Rasul succeeded his father, the first Muslim senator, Hadji Butu, who
was wazir to three sultans.)
Esmail Kiram officially transferred the sultanate’s authority and
sovereignty to the Philippines on Sept. 12, 1962 through a written
instrument signed by himself and Foreign Affairs Secretary Emmanuel
Pelaez. The transfer was authorized by a resolution passed by the Ruma
Bechara (literally “House of Talk,” equivalent to council of
advisers/Cabinet). He thus gave up the Sulu sultanate’s sovereign rights
to Sabah to the government, but retained proprietary rights over the
However, there was a provision in the Ruma Bechara resolution that in
the event the government fails or refuses to protect its claim, the
Sultanate of Sulu reserves the right to prosecute its claim over Sabah,
in whatever manner it can think of. The Kiram family lawyer, Ulka Ulama,
and former Senator Santanina Rasul have documents that bear this out.
(As a UP political science student, Senator Rasul wrote an award-winning
essay on the claim, which was published in the UP Law Journal.)
If the sovereign claim over Sabah is dropped, do we lose all rights?
Even if we lose sovereign rights over Sabah, we still have proprietary
rights, through the heirs of the Sultan, who personally owned Sabah.
The legally recognized owners — members of Sulu royalty and nobility —
were identified in the 1939 ruling of Chief Justice C. F. C. Macaskie
of the High Court of North Borneo: Dayang-Dayang (Princess) Hadji
Piandao was acknowledged as the major share-holder with 3/8 share.
Princess Tarhata Kiram and Princess Sakinur-In Kiram were to each have a
3/16 share. The six other heirs who went to Macaskie’s court were
awarded 1/24 share apiece: Mora Napsa, Sultan Esmail Kiram, Datu
Punjungan, Sitti Mariam, Sitti Jahara and Sitti Rada.
Princess Denchurain acknowledged the nine heirs specified in the Macaskie decision as the true heirs of Sabah.
All the principal heirs have died. As of today, there are probably a
thousand heirs of the heirs. Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandao Kiram, an only
child, was childless. Therefore her cousins, nieces and nephews will
divide her 3/8 share. Among her cousins was my grandmother, Hadja Salma,
wife of Sen. Hadji Butu. Thus, my father, the late Ambassador Rasul,
and his siblings and cousins are heirs. Misuari’s wives (Desdemona and
Ruayda), are heirs. Jamalul III and Esmail are the children of Datu
MOVES TO RESOLVE CLAIM
During the term of President Macapagal, the government in 1962 filed a
claim over Sabah with the United Nations. A Sabah Division was created
in the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Mr. Marcos had other plans. Parallel to legal maneuverings, he had
young Muslims trained in Corregidor to “destabilize” Sabah. The
scenario: the Philippines could then come in and take Sabah by force, to
“protect” the thousands of Tausugs who lived there or incite them to
secede and join the Philippines. The plan went awry, resulting in the
massacre of the Muslim trainees. Except for one lone survivor, Jibin
Arula. Away from the barracks when he heard gunfire, Arula claimed he
saw his comrades mowed down by their military trainors. He ran to the
mountains, went over the cliff and into the sea. He was rescued the next
day by Cavite fishermen. Somehow, he was brought to then Cavite Gov.
Delfin Montano. The governor brought Arula to Senator Benigno Aquino who
then exposed the infamous “Jabidah Massacre” of March 18, 1968.
Malaysia severed diplomatic ties with the Philippines after the expose.
It took the combined efforts of Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand to
resolve the situation.
President Corazon C. Aquino wanted to resolve the claim during her
term. It seems that Malaysia would only agree to negotiate if all the
heirs spoke as one. In 1987, she instructed Foreign Affairs Secretary
Raul Manglapus to bring all the heirs together.
On Oct. 23, 1987, Mr.
Manglapus wrote Ambassador Rasul: “I would like to suggest that the
claimants organize themselves so that they may arrive at a common
position…. Although yours is a private claim, we have the assurance of
the Malaysian government that they are ready and willing to negotiate
with the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu in order to settle this matter.”
Then Sen. Santanina Rasul was requested to coordinate the unification
of the heirs. As her chief of staff, I was tasked to implement the
assignment. We managed to bring them all to Malacañang. After hours of
deliberation, the heirs appointed their representatives, led by Sec.
Manglapus, to negotiate with Malaysia. Unfortunately, the meeting came
to a standstill when Jamalul III dissented.
Afterward, the heirs of
Dayang-Dayang Hadji Piandao Kiram, Sultan Esmail Kiram, Princesses
Tarhata, Sakinur-in and Sitti Mariam sought a meeting with Sec.
A brief from that meeting held on Dec. 6, 1987, stated: “They
were of the opinion that Sultan Mohamad Jamalul Kiram III was
expressing his own personal views which contravene the consensus reached
at the meeting of the heirs with Secretary… Manglapus at the PICC on
Friday, December 4 and at the conference of the heirs held with
President Corazon C. Aquino at Malacañang on Saturday, December 5.”
President Fidel V. Ramos pursued the attempt to unite the heirs. Upon
his suggestion, the representatives of the heirs met on Feb. 10, 1993
to discuss their establishment of the Sulu-Sabah Development Corp.,
which would be responsible for the economic development and
sociocultural advancement of Sulu. It was understood that this entity
would be the conduit of the funds from the settlement of the proprietary
claim over Sabah. Former Presidential Legal Counsel (now Supreme Court
Justice) Antonio Carpio drafted the terms. This corporation would have
been powerful if the idea had prospered.
Why then did the attempts fizzle? During the Ramos years, the heirs
still could not unite. By then, the idea to establish the
Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area had
prospered. Rich Malaysia was employing hundreds of thousands of
Filipinos as well as investing in Mindanao. Terrorism was sprouting and
borders had to be secured. The Sabah claim moved to the back burner.
This situation continued through the short-lived Estrada presidency.
The Arroyo administration renewed interest in settling the claim.
Some of the heirs were feted at Malacañang in 2002 and Jamalul III was
hailed as Sultan of Sulu. President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo even gave
the letter of Sultan Jamalul and Princess Tajmahal, asking for an
adjustment of the rentals, to then Prime Minister Mahathir. The Arroyo
administration, however, did not unite all the heirs, as the preceding
administrations had done.
THE SULTAN OF SULU
The Sultanate of Sulu has had a tradition of being governed by one
Sultan, supported and acknowledged by the citizens of the sultanate. The
last to be so proclaimed was Sultan Mahakuttah Kiram, the son of Esmail
Kiram. Mahakuttah, was recognized by Mr. Marcos, while his father was
recognized by Messrs. Macapagal and Marcos. Jamalul III was recognized
by Mrs. Arroyo, and was even included in the administration senatorial
slate in 2004. He has been the most forceful and visible sultan.
It is unfortunate that today there are over 10 who are claiming the
Sultanship. Among them are Sultan Jamalul III and his brother Sultan
Esmail. Jamalul is the eldest son of Datu Punjungan Kiram. Initially,
Datu Punjungan was the raja muda or crown prince of Sultan Esmail Kiram.
But after Datu Punjungan left the Philippines to reside in Sabah,
Sultan Esmail was fearful that Datu Punjungan might sign a quitclaim in
favor of Malaysia, so he changed his crown prince, with the consent and
authority of his Ruma Bechara. Esmail named his eldest son, Mahakuttah
Kiram, as his crown prince. When Esmail passed away, Mahakuttah
succeeded and his coronation was ordered by Mr. Marcos to safeguard the
Sabah claim. Mahakuttah had anointed his son, Muedzul-Lail as the raja
muda. At the time, Muedzul-Lail was in grade school.
• The Sabah impasse needs to be resolved peacefully. It is to the
interest of the government to ensure that the MNLF, the dominant Moro
liberation front in Sulu, supports a peaceful resolution of the
situation. Misuari can play a role to de-escalate tensions. Not only is
he Tausug and therefore supportive of the sultanate, his late wife
Desdemona and present wife Ruayda are heirs. However, Misuari is
aggrieved that the MNLF and he himself have been sidelined in the peace
process with the MILF. Further, the Arroyo administration had been
instrumental in supporting the Council of 15, which removed Misuari from
the leadership of the MNLF. He was also incarcerated for over seven
years and later released for lack of evidence. Misuari, who is still
recognized by the Organization of the Islamic Conference as the chairman
of the MNLF, is therefore a key player. Misuari yesterday convened a
meeting of the MNLF and island leaders in Zamboanga City on the
situation in Sabah and the claim. A statement will be issued calling for
support for the Sabah claim.
• The national government should encourage and assist the leading
members of the Kirams and the datus of Sulu to come together and choose
one Sultan. This will not only re-establish the tradition of one Sultan
leading the Sulu sultanate; it will provide a focal point for the
nobility and traditional leaders of Sulu to lead in peace and
development. At this point, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III has established his
dominance in the field, particularly after the Lahad Datu incident.
Most of the leaders in the island-provinces of Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and
Basilan — domain of the Sulu sultanate — have applauded his action.
As many elected leaders in the island-provinces have not been
successful in forging a strong foundation of governance and peace,
perhaps strengthening the institution of the sultanate will provide
Sulu, Tawi-Tawi and Basilan with an institution that can help unite the
population behind peace and development, as the sultans of Malaysia are
• The Benigno Aquino administration should follow the initiative
began by Presidents Corazon Aquino and Ramos to unite the Sabah heirs
and pursue the peaceful and just resolution of the Sabah claim.