Estranged twins need careful handling
If Sabah had a twin, it would be Sulu.
Sulu is one of the 82 provinces that make up the Philippines. The province consists of about 150 islands and islets. The largest island is Jolo, which is also the name of the provincial capital.
The Sulu Sea separates the twins. Sulu is closer geographically to Sabah than to Manila. Sabah is nearer to Sulu than Kuala Lumpur as the crow flies.
People, history and geopolitics connect both.
The province’s population of about one million people is dominated by the Tausug, who are called Suluk in Sabah.
According to Cesar Adib Majul’s “Political and Historical Notes on the Old Sulu Sultanate,” “Before the coming of the Spaniards in the Philippines during the 16th century, the Sulu Sultanate had become the relatively largest, best organized, and most powerful political entity in the Philippines archipelago.
“The enviable geographical position of the Sulu Archipelago allowed Jolo, its second largest island, not only to become a trade centre but also to control part of the trade of the famed spice islands,” wrote the Philippine historian in the paper presented at the Conference on Asian History in 1964.
Shari Jeffri, a private researcher of North Borneo/Sabah history, explained that Sulu was a vassal of the greater Brunei empire from 1457 to 1578.
“The way the Sultanate of Sulu operated was not a territorial expansion but rather a vassalage influence system [Sistem Kedatuan] in a thalassocracy [or maritime] kingdom,” he said.
“The vassalage system, until 1936, was based on the strength and wealth of a number of Datus whose loyalty changed regularly depending on political developments among the Sulu and Brunei Sultanates’ royal houses.”
Most Malaysians are familiar with “Sulu” because of the US$14.97bil (about RM62.6bil or 16% of Malaysia’s annual budget) arbitration case filed by eight individuals claiming to be heirs of the Sulu Sultanate. The court battles over cession payments to the Sultanate are ongoing in countries such as France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
For some, the arbitration case is just the latest adverse episode from Sulu. In 2000, 21 people, including foreign tourists, were abducted from Sabah’s Sipadan Island and held on Jolo Island; they were rescued by the Philippine army.
In 2013, an armed invasion of Lahad Datu in Sabah was launched from the Sulu archipelago in the name of Jamalul Kiram III, one of the claimants to the Sulu Sultanate throne. Six civilians, 10 Malaysian security forces personnel, and about 56 Sulu intruders were killed in the bloody six-week conflict.
In 2015, Sarawakian tourist Bernard Then was abducted from a seaside restaurant in Sandakan, Sabah, and eventually his captors, the Abu Sayyaf militant group, murdered him on Jolo Island.
In 2020, two Indonesian suicide bombers attacked a cathedral in Jolo town, killing 22 people.
Unsurprisingly, most Malaysians see Sulu Province as lawless.
Previously, I would have fully agreed with that perception. I’ve been visiting Sulu since I covered the Sipadan kidnapping 23 years ago. Back then, I worried when walking more than 50 meters in Jolo town on my own. Philippines security forces warned foreign journalists to watch our backs as an Abu Sayyaf gunman could put a bullet in our heads, they said.
In March 2022, when I arrived at the Jolo airport after a 30-minute flight in a 15-seater airplane from Zamboanga City, the authorities only allowed me to step out of the premises after my security detail picked me up.
“No foreigner is allowed to step out from the airport unescorted,” a policeman told me.
However, during my trip last month, there was a different feel to Jolo. For the first time, I felt relaxed – I didn’t feel like I had to watch my back even though I had a security detail (and even though some on the detail were carrying light machine guns).
It felt like peace and order had returned to Sulu. It was evident when I met travel vloggers from Manila on the pristine white sands of Mang Sali beach in Parang.
“You don’t have any security?” I asked.
“We only have a tourist guide. It is safe here,” he said as his girlfriend recorded a video of herself with the white powdery sand and turquoise waters as a background.
The Sulu Provincial Tourism Office told me that Filipino tourists traveling to the province did not require a security escort as the destinations they visited were safe. “But as you are a foreigner, you need security just in case something happens,” an official said.
The provincial government wants to develop Sulu as a tourist destination. In an interview with local media in October last year, Sulu Governor Abdusakur Tan said his province was now experiencing good peace and order since the remnants of the Abu Sayyaf Group were on the run after most of their leaders were killed and arrested or had surrendered.
The Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA) reported in 2021 that the poorest province in the country is Sulu. It has a poverty incidence of 71.9 – “poverty incidence among the population is defined as the proportion of Filipinos whose per capita income cannot sufficiently meet their individual basic food and non-food needs”, according to the PSA.
Sulu is trying to break the vicious cycle of lawlessness and poverty, and it is hoping to do it with tourism pesos. Or better still, tourism dollars from international tourists.
I believe in the “prosper thy neighbor” policy. Hopefully, prosperity will bring peace to Sulu. And Sabah will benefit from a peaceful and prosperous Sulu.
My most recent visit was to research the possibility of writing a book I’ve tentatively titled Sabah and Sulu: Separated by the Sulu Sea but Connected Historically.
The other reason was to meet up with Sulu Provincial Tourism to discuss the possibility of organising a 4WD (“offroad” for Filipinos who didn’t understand “4WD”) event in Sulu.
North Borneo Explorer Sdn Bhd (NBE), an adventure and tour company based in Kota Kinabalu, is internationally known among 4WD enthusiasts for organizing TransBorneo events traversing territories on Borneo Island, including Sabah, Sarawak, Kalimantan, and Brunei. This year it is planning the “Trans-Borneo: The Twilight Trail” from Sabah and Sarawak into Kaltara in Kalimantan Utara and Kaltim in Kalimantan Timur.
NBE’s event director Anuar Ghani is always looking for new locations for adventure: “Sulu, with its mystique and unknown content, is definitely an interesting prospect. Putting aside geopolitical factors and issues of sovereignty, Sulu seems like an exciting place to travel to, get to know and find adventure in,” he said.
“Possibly, the adventure aspect may be fraught with excitement and elements of danger as it is known as a place of strife, conflict and uncertainty. Subject to leave from the relevant diplomatic authorities and assurances of safety, we are open to studying the possibility of traversing the island, which promises to be a riveting and gripping experience and adventure.”
I informed Anuar that a Trans-Borneo event in Sulu would be a logistical and security nightmare. He is unworried as he expects the unexpected.
Just travelling from Zamboanga City to Jolo Island can be dangerous, and not just because of possible conflict. For example, two days after I took the night ferry from Jolo town to Zamboanga City, a similar passenger vessel plying the route caught fire, killing more than 32 people onboard. Tourism infrastructure obviously needs developing here.
With the Sulu arbitration hanging over Sabah and Sulu, the two are now like estranged twins. If the matter is not handled carefully and honestly, other violent episodes may surge across the Sulu Sea.