I visited Sabah some years back upon the invitation of a Malaysian women’s group, and I remember a conversation between me and my hosts, many of whom were born and bred in Sabah. The conversation had turned to the claim being made by the Philippine government, in behalf of the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu, that Sabah was Philippine territory. “And so, as far as some Filipinos are concerned, Sabah belongs to the Philippines,” I said.
One of my hosts glanced skeptically at me and replied: “Well, as far as we Sabahans are concerned, Sabah belongs to Sabahans.”
Before then, my “Sabahan” friends had been telling me how remote they felt from the Malaysian mainland, and how the federal Malaysian government seemed to think of their island as a mere resource-rich territory ripe for exploitation (including the current thrust of tourism) rather than as an integral part of the country.
Well, our exchange showed me that while, at that time, Sabahans felt at a remove from the rest of Malaysia, neither were they ready to embrace (or be embraced by) another “foreign” power, the Philippines. If I remember right, at the time of my visit, there was even a nascent “Sabah independence” movement airing a call for a separate, autonomous republic.
Now comes news of the “visit” of a delegation of about 200 folks, including 100 armed escorts, headed by the “Crown Prince” of the Sultanate of Sulu who sailed from Tawi-tawi and occupied a town hundreds of miles from the Sabah capital, Kota Kinabalu.
The latest news bulletins say there is a standoff between the sultanate’s delegation and the Malaysian army, which has supposedly surrounded the group. Both the Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs and the Malaysian government have urged the “visitors” to return to the Philippines.
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Historical records leave no room for dispute. Sabah is indeed part of the Sultanate of Sulu, and the presence of large numbers of Tausug (the dominant ethnic group in Sulu-Tawi-tawi) in Sabah itself is testament to how they consider the territory part of the neighborhood. (Tawi-tawi is less than an hour’s boat ride away.)
Modern history and regional power politics, however, frustrated the sultanate’s authority over the area. The sultanate leased out Sabah to the British North Borneo Company in 1878, and the company itself later transferred the territory to Malaysia in 1963.
The Philippine government has, from time to time, resurrected the “Sabah claim,” usually in a bid to win leverage in regional competitions for power. By far the most serious attempt took place under the first Marcos administration, before the proclamation of martial law, with the so-called “Jabidah massacre.”
A top-secret operation had apparently been launched to prepare Filipino Muslim soldiers to raid Sabah and take over the reins of government. A training camp was set up on Corregidor Island, but the operation’s cover was blown after a trainee escaped and told then opposition Sen. Ninoy Aquino about the secret training camp, including the horrendous conditions under which some of his comrades had died. The “Jabidah massacre” exposé was to land Aquino at the top of Marcos’ list of enemies.
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Later administrations chose to take a more low-key position regarding the claim over Sabah, but the claim never did disappear completely.
Still, the action of the delegation from Sulu, especially their “field trip” to Sabah, came as a surprise to many, including the Philippine government.
The trip raises many questions, questions which government and DFA spokespeople have not really addressed adequately. For one thing, how could an armed group of at least 100 “security forces” gather in Tawi-tawi and board a flotilla of boats sailing toward Sabah without triggering the usual alarm bells?
Was there a failure of intelligence when the heirs of the sultanate gathered and discussed the need to make their presence felt in Sabah? Did not our various authorities, including Sulu’s local leaders, know about the extent of the sultanate heirs’ sense of betrayal and how they felt “ignored” in the course of the peace process with the Moro National Liberation Front and Moro Islamic Liberation Front?
Indeed, my suspicions are raised. The latest news before this “excursion” to Sabah was how MNLF forces had been going after elements of the Abu Sayyaf in Sulu, supposedly as part of the effort to free the bandit group’s remaining hostages. Could this have been part of an effort to distract local authorities as the sultanate’s heirs prepared to pay a visit to Sabah, including gathering their security forces and their arms?
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The biggest mystery, however, is the full extent of the sultanate’s plans beyond landing in Sabah.
That they chose to land in a small town hundreds of miles from the capital but occupied by sympathizers, may be proof of their intent to build a bigger force perhaps to march onto Kota Kinabalu.
But did they really think they could land on Sabah’s shores and lay claim to the island without arousing suspicion or provoking a response from Malaysian authorities? Could this speak of a fatal hubris on the part of the sultanate’s heirs, if not carelessness in their planning and tactics?
At some point in the simmering dispute over Sabah, there was a proposal to bring the Philippine claim for arbitration before an international body. I don’t know what has happened to this suggestion, but I suspect things have moved far beyond a territorial dispute for a simple solution.
Perhaps we should start talking not just to Malaysians but to Sabahans as well. Perhaps their interests will jibe fittingly with ours, leading to a win (Philippines)-win (the Sultanate of Sulu)-win (Sabahans)-win (Malaysia) solution that will finally bring an end to this festering issue.