With Due Respect

National interest

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Why did the United Kingdom so easily cede its sovereignty over Sabah to Malaysia in 1963 despite knowing that its rights over the territory arose merely from the lease granted by the Sultan of Sulu to the British North Borneo Company? Why did it ignore the Philippine claim and voluntarily relinquish its sovereignty over Sabah to the new emerging state of Malaysia?

Contrasting actions. In contrast, why did the United Kingdom, then headed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, consistently refuse, as it still continues to refuse, to surrender its sovereignty over the faraway Falklands to Argentina, to the extent of waging war with that impoverished country in 1982? And at present, why does it risk another war with Argentina over these islands? The Falklands lies 13,000 kilometers from the United Kingdom but only 1,500 kilometers from Argentina.

Why did the United Kingdom, also then headed by Prime Minister Thatcher, willingly cede its sovereignty over Hong Kong, Kowloon and the surrounding islands to the People’s Republic of China upon the expiration of its lease over the New Territories in 1997? It announced such surrender in 1982, 15 years ahead of schedule, causing the collapse of the stock market and real estate prices in its erstwhile Crown Colony (only to bounce back after the Chinese took over).

Yet, only the 99-year lease of the New Territories was due to expire in 1997, not that of Hong Kong, Kowloon and the surrounding islands, which were ceded “in perpetuity” to the United Kingdom by China. And yet, the United Kingdom returned not just the New Territories but also Hong Kong, Kowloon and the surrounding islands.

Veiled in legalities. The short answer to all these seemingly bewildering questions is national interest. The UK leaders believe that it was in their national interest to cede Sabah to Malaysia (not to the Philippines), surrender all of Hong Kong (not just the New Territories) to China, and deny the Falklands to Argentina.

As has been said so often, “We have no permanent friends or permanent enemies, only permanent interests.” This is true in politics as it is in international relations.

National interest was on the mind of Tunku Abdul Rahman when in 1965 he voluntarily cut off Singapore from the two-year-old Federation of Malaysia to become an independent state, to the utter surprise of a tearful Lee Kuan Yew, who aspired only for better treatment, not separation, for the Chinese-dominated island of Singapore from the Malay-controlled Malaysian Federation.

National interest was also what former US Ambassador to the United Nations Warren Austin invoked when he boasted, “I should regard it as highly improper for me to admit that any country on earth can question the sovereignty of the United States of America in the exercise of that high political act of recognition of the de facto status of a state. Moreover, I would not admit here, by implication or direct answer, that there exists a tribunal of justice or of any other kind, anywhere, that can pass upon the legality or validity of that act of my country.”

Of course, not all nations can boast as much, and as often, as the great powers of the world, which can back up their bravado with their military arsenals. On the other hand, less endowed nations depend on the rule of law and reason, and invoke the intervention of international and regional tribunals.

No wonder Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario never tires of asserting “right is might” in his search for solutions to our international problems, especially with China and Malaysia. Indeed, being weak and deprived, the Philippines must depend on the rule of law, even if it is ever mindful of what Cicero said long ago: “When arms speak, laws are silent.” Our country always vies for peaceful solutions because when peace reigns, laws begin to speak.

Philippine interest. At bottom, where does the national interest of the Philippines lie in the Sabah dispute? Is it in forcibly taking over Sabah even at the risk of war with Malaysia, as the Sultanate of Sulu wants? Or is it in patiently invoking its claims via only the peaceful methods allowed by its Constitution and the United Nations Charter?

Is it really in the national interest of the Philippines to rule over 2.5 million Sabahans, even without their consent, provided the means to acquire such rule is peaceful, as in winning in the International Court of Justice? Is it not more prudent to first ask the Sabahans whether they want to be under the Philippines or Malaysia, or to be independent?

Is it in the national interest of the Philippines to take over Sabah, given that its people are apart culturally, historically, socially and politically from the majority of Filipinos? Is it not better to let go and let be, as the Tunku did to Singapore in 1965?

If the Philippines acquires sovereignty over Sabah, should it be treated an integral part of our national territory? Or should it be a colony? Or should it be autonomous, like the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, the desideratum of Nur Misuari and the Moro National Liberation Front? Or should it be another Bangsamoro, the aspiration of Murad Ibrahim and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front?

These are some of the hard questions that must be answered before we plunge any deeper into the Sabah dispute. As for the Sultan of Sulu, he and his followers have many choices, too. They can always press their ownership claims to whoever has sovereignty over Sabah, whether it be the Philippines, Malaysia, or an independent Sabah.

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