For 50 years, the Philippine claim to Sabah in the former British North Borneo has remained dormant like a ticking time bomb. On Feb. 12, this tranquility was disturbed when some 300 armed Filipinos led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu, landed on the seaside village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah after crossing the sea from Island in Tawi-Tawi, the Philippines’ southernmost province in the Sulu Archipelago.
Agbimuddin was reported to have claimed that the expedition was launched to press the claim of the Sulu sultanate to Sabah, which the administration of President Aquino appeared to have shelved to avoid a confrontation with Malaysia, which has been brokering the government’s peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The landing threatened to wreck the framework agreement signed by the Aquino administration with the MILF, a “peace in our time” accord to create a Bangsamoro entity, carving out an autonomous Moro homeland from the sovereign territory of the Philippine republic.
The expedition also created a dangerous armed impasse as Sabah security forces surrounded the landing group, which refused demands to leave the village, saying it should not be expelled because Sabah is part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. Negotiations are underway between Philippine and Malaysian authorities to prevent the standoff from escalating into an explosive confrontation. The impasse has also reignited demands in the Philippines to put the claim to Sabah on high profile in the relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur—a step that may open rifts in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, of which the two countries are original founding members.
The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu decided to press their claim to Sabah after feeling betrayed and left out in the peace process between the Aquino administration and the MILF, according to a report in the Inquirer. In an interview with the Inquirer, Agbimuddin said the government appeared to have neglected the heirs and ignored their stand that their claim to Sabah is an “integral and essential” aspect of any peace agreement with any armed group in Mindanao. Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson of the sultanate, said the decision to show not just physical presence but actual occupation of Sabah came late last year, shortly after the Aquino administration signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF on Oct. 15.
“They are not interested, this government and the previous governments, so we decided to act on our own,” Agbimuddin said. On Feb. 11, he and 1,000 followers, including armed men from what he called the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo,” left Simunul Island on speedboats and headed to Sabah. He described the action as, not an act of aggression, but “a journey back home.”
Idjirani said that before the signing of the framework agreement, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process invited the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to what was supposed to be a consultation on the peace deal with the MILF. Idjirani said the heirs thought the government wanted a comprehensive resolution to the peace, security and economic problems of territories in Mindanao by consulting with them. “But it was just talk,” he said. “The framework agreement was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They just pretended to consult us.”
The next thing the heirs knew, Idjirani said, the framework agreement had been signed without any mention of the “historic and sovereign rights of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo” in it. “Until the government includes the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, no lasting and significant peace will come to Mindanao,” he said. “They should have seen the failure of the peace agreement with Nur Misuari. ”
According to Idjirani, the signing of the framework agreement with the MILF led to the unification of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and their decision to proceed with claiming Sabah on their own. He said the “meeting of the minds” of the heirs occurred on Nov. 11 last year in a relative’s house.
It was during that meeting that Sultan Jamalul Kiram III issued the royal decree that authorized his brother’s “journey” to Sabah. Among the 70 Tausug men rounded up by Malaysian authorities was Agbimuddin.
Over more than a century, the Tausug of Sulu have crossed the sea to Sabah, the former homeland of the sultanate, and had trade intercourse with the inhabitants.
The former British North Borneo, which used to be under the Sultan of Brunei, was ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in 1704 after he helped crush a rebellion against the Sultan of Brunei.
Sabah was leased by the British North Borneo Co. to the British colonizers of the former federation of Malaya. It became Malaysia in 1963, when the British relinquished sovereignty. Subsequently, Sabah became part of Malaysia, with which the Philippines has a dispute over Sabah. The Philippines lost interest in pressing its claim at the International Court of Justice in 1963. This vacuum opened the way for the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to press their claim on Sabah on their own initiative.