At no time since its foundation in the 15th century has the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo been so much in the news.
Since February when some 200 armed men led by Agbimuddin Kiram, younger brother of Jamalul Kiram III, slipped into Sabah (North Borneo) ostensibly to settle in what they called their “homeland,” the sultanate—its history, how it came to own North Borneo, the decades of negotiations and agreements between Malaysia and the Philippines, etc.—has been the focus of media, along with almost daily news feeds of the “standoff” between the Kiram “Royal Security Forces” and the Malaysian armed forces.
Unfortunately, most of what got into the newspapers were the reports from Malaysian government-controlled media, and the Kiram family, the only “official” source in the country for information on the often frightening developments in Lahad Datu, proved to be less than forthcoming in their pronouncements, all of which led to much confusion among media and, inevitably, the loss of credibility of the sultanate.
Adding to the rigmarole was the recent pronouncement of Moro National Liberation Front founding chair Nur Misuari, with the surety of one whose word is law, that he was the “real owner of Sabah,” and that he and his followers numbering “thousands” were ready to fight for it “for a hundred years.” Hail then the immortal.
This remarkable statement has confused not so much the public, used as it is now to Misuari’s erratic compass (he was there when Agbimuddin Kiram and his men were training in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi; he gathered hundreds somewhere in Davao to proclaim Fuad Kiram, cousin of Jamalul III, as Sultan of Sulu; he was beside Jamalul to show support at the height of the RSF-Malaysia fiasco, admitting that the RSF was made up of his own men), but more so, rendered almost speechless the very spokesperson of Jamalul III, Abraham Idjirani, who, with the pathetic countenance of one who has suddenly realized that he has been used, could only ask: “why only now?” It was probably out of courtesy that Idjirani did not even mention what it was the Greek gods did first to those they wished to destroy.
All of which drove Jamalul III to seek the help of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines in appealing to the Pope’s assistance in convincing the United Nations to settle the “Sabah conflict.”
With Jamalul too weak and ailing to even wonder whether Pope Francis has honored him with a papal edict, his daughter Jacel complains to the media “grabe talaga ang ginagawa ng mga Malaysian sa mga Tausug doon,” and the Malaysian official media coming out with a story—proven false again—that the combined Malaysian and Philippine naval forces had killed 32 men of the sultanate who attempted to infiltrate Malaysia, you wonder whether you yourself are a victim of the gods.
Then, as it is each time the question of Sabah or North Borneo comes up, “sultans” virtually sprout out of the ground like mushrooms, each claiming he is the “legitimate” sultan, and therefore the owner of Sabah, giving the sultanate the distinction not only of being the poorest sultanate in the world but also that of having the most sultans. As of last exaggerated count, they numbered 60, but I would set it at a dozen at least, and even at that, already making the once glorious Sultanate of Sulu the laughingstock of the world.
Blinded as they are by the glint of North Borneo and its riches, these “royal” pretenders should be made to undergo a crash course in Monarchy 101.
But first and foremost, they should be aware that North Borneo was not “given” to the Sultanate of Sulu by the Sultan of Brunei out of the goodness of his heart. It was actually granted as reimbursement (and only partly as reward) for helping him win in his territorial dispute with a neighboring sultan.
Then as now, you could not dispatch a war expedition just by word of mouth. A well-researched work of two volumes printed and distributed for free by the government during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos (I hope these are still in the catalogue of the National Library) listed in detail the expedition expenses: construction and outfitting of new paraos, weapons and other war materiel, food provisions—and assured compensation for the fighters in the form of gold given to mothers and wives in case their sons or husbands perished in the battle (over a hundred did).
All of these monies were taken from the coffers of the sultanate, which was the accumulated collection of tributes and profits from trade and commerce, and taxes paid by the subjects.
The sultan and the datus did not just sit on their asses waiting to collect the rent from North Borneo. From the sultan to the Ruma Bichara (which was the cabinet and legislature composed of ministers heading such departments as the judiciary, treasury, commerce, the navy and armed forces) to the panglimas and maharajahs, these personages worked for their keep, which is something these sultan wannabes should keep in mind.
This is why the Bangsa Sug, the raayat (citizens) along with their leaders, including elective officials, are trying to revive the sultanate according to the principles and laws upon which it was founded and has endured for centuries.
What is envisioned is a functioning sultanate that is compatible with modern governance, that at the same time is Islamic yet inclusive, preserving the racial identities and culture of its people while respecting those of others.
The kris and barung found on the flag of the sultanate were cherished symbols of the legendary bravery of the Tausug. Guns, according to them, are the power symbols of cowards.
With the revival of the sultanate, those who derive their power from guns should now find themselves irrelevant.
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