The Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, now headed by Jamalul Kiram III, who can trace his lineage at least 500 years back (the sultanate was founded in 1465)—how many Filipinos can go back that far?—still strikes me as a tragic institution, the victim of greed, opportunism, and indifference particularly during the second half of its history.
Only consider: There was Spain, which forced it to accept Spain’s sovereignty over “Jolo and its dependencies,” then turned around and ceded North Borneo (which was not a dependency of Jolo but had been awarded to the sultanate by the Sultan of Brunei in 1685 in gratitude for the former’s help in quelling a 10-year rebellion that had devastated Brunei) to Britain under the so-called Madrid Protocol among Spain, Britain and Germany. It must be pointed out that Spain did the same thing to the Philippines: It ceded us to the United States even if we were no longer the former colonizer’s to cede.
Then there was Britain, which first declared in 1883 that it assumed no sovereignty over Borneo, but then five years later made a protectorate of North Borneo, and finally in 1946 (10 days after Philippine independence, mind you), annexed North Borneo as part of the British Dominions, in spite of formal reminders in the interim by the US government that Sabah (the other name of North Borneo) was not Britain’s, but belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu.
And then, of course, there is Malaysia, which, 135 years after the Sultanate of Sulu leased North Borneo to a private British company (later known as the British North Borneo Co.), is still paying the sultanate essentially the same rent as in the original agreement (later slightly modified because of additional territory). Last year, for example, the Sultan received a little over P200,000 as lease payments for the whole of Sabah.
Sabah’s land area is over 73,000 square kilometers. Do the arithmetic: The Sultanate of Sulu is paid something like P2.74 per square kilometer in rent. For the Reader’s delectation, one square kilometer is equal to one million square meters.
And has the sultanate gotten better treatment from the Philippines? On the whole, unfortunately, the answer has to be NO. President Aquino and President Gloria Arroyo never even bothered to acknowledge, much less reply to, the letter they each got from Sultan Kiram III, who was not even asking for help with regard to Sabah.
President Fidel Ramos, if one recalls correctly, was in favor of renouncing the Philippine claim to Sabah (without consulting the Sultan); President Cory Aquino’s administration vowed to resolve the matter one way or another—and did not; President Ferdinand Marcos, after his disastrous, bungled attempt (Operation Merdekah) allegedly to invade and take over Sabah, announced in 1977 at an Asean meeting (again without consulting the Sultan) that the Philippines would renounce its claim to Sabah (he did not follow through).
The only President who made serious attempts to claim Sabah, it seems, was President Diosdado Macapagal. And with him we can begin to identify the good guys who appeared in the odyssey of the Sultanate of Sulu.
The United States must take a bow as one of the good guys. As mentioned above, it gave formal reminders to Britain that Sabah belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu, and it was an American, former governor general Francis Harrison, who denounced Britain’s act of annexing North Borneo 10 days after the Philippines gained its independence, as an act of “political aggression.”
But it was not until 1962 that the Philippines (under Diosdado Macapagal) tried to flex its muscles, with Indonesia an ally (Indonesia wasn’t too keen either on North Borneo being part of the Malaysian Federation, seeing as almost the rest of Borneo is part of Indonesia). And here another good guy must be identified: journalist Napoleon Rama, whose series of articles in the Philippines Free Press titled “North Borneo Belongs to Us” raised an uproar and galvanized public opinion.
Then there was Jovito Salonga, who led the legislature’s support for the cause. Macapagal even wrote then US President John F. Kennedy, presumably seeking his help, and began talks with Britain (not much happened). Not so trivia: Macapagal mentioned in his letter that Sabah is only 18 miles from the Philippines and 1,000 miles from Malaya (the Malayan peninsula).
The move to end Malaysia’s “hegemony” obviously petered out. But what I cannot understand at this point is why our government seems to be unduly anxious to please Malaysia. When the Philippines was to host the Asean, then Sen. Letty Shahani introduced a bill in the Senate proposing to give up our claim to Sabah. (This was stopped in its tracks by Jovito Salonga, who said that any giving up of claims must be conditioned on the protection of the proprietorial rights of the Sultan of Sulu. When the Malaysian king came a-visiting, there was also another move to give up our claim, but Congress apparently refused to cooperate.)
This eagerness to please is particularly puzzling, because Malaysia has been, if anything, rather arrogant insofar as the Philippines is concerned. One remembers that 1,200 Filipino domestic helpers were rounded up in a Catholic church in Malaysia as they were attending Mass. But never mind religious sensibilities. What about its arrogance with regard to the peace talks, trying to tell us what to do or what not to do? Or, the latest, its refusal to turn over Aman Futures’ Manuel Amalilio?
Is some self-respect on our part too much to ask?