Of kings, sultans and Sabah | Inquirer Opinion
Manuel F. Almario

Of kings, sultans and Sabah

Once upon a time there were kings and sultans. They were absolute monarchs. They were sovereign. They owned the land. They knighted nobles or named datus to whom they parceled out their lands in exchange for service in times of war and revolution, and in times of peace. Now, it is the people who are sovereign.

In the centuries that the monarchs ruled, the lands of the nobles/datus were tilled by the serfs or the peasants who gave them a part of the produce for the use of the land. The serfs had no rights.  They were part of the land. They also rendered free labor to the lords and datus. These “royals” were rich. They lived in castles. The peasants lived in huts and were always on the verge of starvation.


So it was for a thousand years. Then the people got fed up with being enslaved and starved. The serfs and peasants and the workers in the cities who did not have political and civil rights revolted against the king and his lords. The English, French, American and Russian revolutions wiped out the absolute monarchies, and the sultanates in the East soon followed. Democracy became universal, except for a few holdouts.

British and Dutch colonialism in Malaya, Brunei and Indonesia undermined the sultanates, and made them subservient to the colonial power.  Eventually, they were absorbed by the democratic states organized by their people. The Spanish empire in the Philippines never did subdue the Sultanate of Sulu.


It took the more modern empire of the United States to do that after a series of brutal Moro wars culminating in the Battle of Bud Bagsak in June 1913. In that battle, General Pershing’s troops massacred the Moro warriors and broke the Moro resistance.

Subsequently, the then Sultan of Sulu, Hadji M. Jamalul Kiram, signed an agreement with F. W. Carpenter, the US governor of Mindanao and Sulu, on March 22, 1915.  The agreement declared: “The Sultan of Sulu on his own account and on behalf of his adherents in the Sulu Archipelago and elsewhere without any reservation or limitation whatsoever, ratifies and confirms his recognition of the sovereignty of the United States of America …” (italics supplied)

In return, the agreement recognized the Sultan of Sulu as the “titular spiritual head of the Mohammedan Church in the Sulu Archipelago.” It declared that “the Sultan of Sulu and his adherents and people of the Mohammedan faith shall have the same religious freedom, creeds, the practice of which is not in violation of the basic principles of the laws of the United States of America.”

There was no mention of the sultanate as a sovereign or political power. The Sultan of Sulu, like the Catholic Church in the Philippines, retained only its spiritual power.

The so-called Carpenter Agreement was forged by the sultan and his counselors and by the representatives of the United States on July 19-26, 1904, “following the abrogation of the so-called Bates Treaty by the President of the United States, March 21, 1904,” as stated by the agreement itself.

The Bates treaty, negotiated in 1899 by US Brig. Gen. John C. Bates with then Sultan of Sulu, Dato Rajah Muda, recognized some of the existing rights and privileges of the sultanate. It also asserted: “The United States will give full protection to the Sultan and his subjects in case any foreign nation should attempt to impose upon them.”

But since the Bates Treaty was “abrogated” by the US government in 1904, such a pledge no longer holds.  The US grant of independence to the Philippines in 1946 restored to the Filipinos their sovereign power, which was taken from them after the short-lived Malolos Republic fell to US arms in the Philippine-American War of 1899-2001.


The Philippine Constitutions of 1935, 1972 and 1987 also did not mention the Sultanate of Sulu.  This placed the Sultan of Sulu and his datus on the same equal status as all other citizens of our country, including the president of the republic, the members of Congress, all local officials, of being subject to the Constitution and the laws.

Section 1 of Article II of the 1987 Constitution declares: “The Philippines is a democratic and republican state.” The people’s sovereignty extends throughout the “National Territory,” including Sulu, as defined by the Constitution.  Incidentally, there is no mention of Sabah in the “National Territory.”

Section 2 of the same article II declares: “The Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, adopts the generally accepted principles of international law as part of the law of the nation and adheres to the policy of peace, equality, justice, freedom, cooperation and amity of all nations.”

President Aquino, as he has sworn, is exerting all efforts to enforce the Constitution and its laws.  All citizens, including the Sultan of Sulu and his followers, who are all Filipino citizens, are required to obey the Constitution and its laws.  The authority of the central government must be maintained; otherwise, the state will fall apart.

The pursuit of the Sabah claim, backed by arms, resulting in personal tragedies to thousands of Filipinos in Sabah and Sulu, and to the Malaysians themselves, stems from an effort to turn back the hands of time, an unnatural move, to restore ancient privileges no longer accepted as moral or right in our time. Going back in time is as destructive to the social psyche as going back from manhood to childhood is to the individual psyche.
Manuel F. Almario is a veteran journalist, freelance writer, and spokesperson of the Movement for Truth in History, Rizal’s Moth.

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TAGS: Commentary, History, opinion, Sabah, Sultan, Sulu
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