I still see stuff in newspapers justifying the Kirams’ armed incursion into Sabah on the ground that they have a rightful claim to the place. Some even take the macho stance of praising them for having the balls to do what a host of Philippine governments couldn’t do. The one item specifically invoked to bolster their claim to Sabah is Jovito Salonga’s 1963 speech arguing for it.
In fact there are two issues here and not just one. The first is: Does the Sultanate of Sulu have a rightful claim to Sabah? The answer is: Arguably. The second is: Do the Kirams have the right to invade Sabah because of it? The answer is: No.
Legally at least, the sultanate has a reasonable claim to it. It was as a grant by the Sultan of Brunei to the Sultan of Sulu in 1704. The Sultan of Sulu subsequently leased it to an Austrian entrepreneur for a beggarly sum, who in turn sold out his lease rights to a British merchant, Alfred Dent, a few years later. Dent formed the British Borneo Co. in the understanding that his company merely held administrative authority over Sabah.
In 1946, the company transferred all its rights and obligations to the British Crown, which was protested by the US government which had just granted the Philippines independence. A succession of Philippine presidents then took up the cudgels for reclaiming Sabah, Congress agreeing unanimously in 1962 to conscript the presidency to it.
Not all is clear-cut, however, which is why I say “arguable.” At the very least, all these arrangements have been enforced by colonial authority, and there is one colonial agreement, the Madrid Protocol of 1885, where Spain, Britain and Germany agreed to recognize the sovereignty of Spain over the Sulu archipelago in exchange for Spain giving up all claims over North Borneo. That was how Britain, deeming the sultanate to be a subject of Spain, declared North Borneo its protectorate.
Infinitely more than that, in 1963, North Borneo attained self-government and the representatives of its three ethnic communities, the Muslims, the non-Muslims and the Chinese, ruled to join the Federation of Malaysia. Are we going to deny the rights of the Sabah people to self-rule, or self-determination, or freedom—which is the essence of sovereignty—in the name of the Sultan of Sulu originally “owning” Sabah? Are we going to turn them back into vassals of the Sultanate of Sulu? Self-determination will trump property rights anytime.
The second issue, unfortunately, has pushed back the first and made it irrelevant. The people who keep invoking Salonga’s speech conveniently forget the last part of one of his most vital statements: “In 1962 the House of Representatives, in rare unanimity, passed a resolution urging the President of the Philippines to recover North Borneo consistent with international law and procedure.” The forgotten part is obviously “consistent with international law and procedure.”
Swooping into Sabah heavily armed is not consistent with international law and procedure. Engaging the security forces of Sabah and killing eight of them while suffering 19 casualties oneself is not consistent with international law and procedure. Ambushing cops in Sabah and killing a number of them while being beaten to death for trying to take a village captive is not consistent with international law and procedure. A claim to Sabah, even if arguable, does not justify this. A claim to Sabah, even if defensible, does not defend this.
This particular truth was driven home long ago, and true enough, those who do not read their history are doomed to repeat it. The prospect of being able to add to the riches he could loot so inflamed Ferdinand Marcos he decided to forego the nicety of pursuing Sabah in ways consistent with international law and procedure and opt instead to foment an uprising there. In 1967, his military launched “Operation Merdeka,” recruiting some 200 Muslim youth from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and training them in Corregidor to become a commando unit called Jabidah. There was only one problem: They forgot to tell the recruits their real mission.
When they learned about it, and horrified at the prospect of ending up killing fellow Tausug and Sama, they mutinied. Their handlers responded by taking them to a remote airfield in batches of 12 and machine-gunning them to death. All but one survived. The plot never got off the ground. It certainly did not get off the Philippines.
The Kirams’ own plot—and that of those others who have invested in them for their own gain—has. It has gotten off the ground, it has gotten off the water, it has gotten off the Philippines. It has gotten all the way to Sabah, and created a violent conflagration there.
How will this macabre misadventure end? Badly.
The monumental tragedy isn’t just that the people who did this stand to be driven to the edge of the sea, if not extirpated, though that is an epic tragedy by itself. It is already happening as we speak; jets have flown bombing missions on the intruders’ lairs. They have shed blood, which has a way of inviting retaliation, which has a way of inviting more bloodshed.
The tragedy is also that in the end, it puts the claim on Sabah—by the Sultanate of Sulu or the Philippine government, the relationship between them has never been clear over the years—beyond reach of fulfillment. That was the effect of the Jabidah massacre, the psychology being that people who would rather argue their case with force and subterfuge, with violence and mayhem, have no case to argue. The “Tanduao massacre” has upped the ante by leaps and bounds, and will have even bigger consequences. It could end the claim forever.
Two issues, and the way the Kirams have gone about it, a loss on both counts.