What will happen to PH ownership of Sabah? | Inquirer Opinion
As I See It

What will happen to PH ownership of Sabah?

/ 12:07 AM March 31, 2014

The comprehensive peace agreement signed by the national government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is not so comprehensive after all. It raised more questions to which there are no clear answers yet.

For example, what will happen to the Philippine claim to Sabah? The Sultanate of Sulu owns Sabah, but this has been annexed by Malaysia. Sulu will be part of the Bangsamoro and ruled by the Bangsamoro government. What will the latter do with this controversial issue?


“We have no claim to Sabah,” said law professor Alan Paguia at a news forum. “We already own it. It is Malaysia who is claiming it. But it is just a tenant who refuses to leave and who has stopped paying rent.”

Sabah was part of the Sultanate of Sulu. In the 18th century, the British North Borneo Co. rented it from the Sulu sultan to be used for plantations. It paid a fixed annual amount to the sultan.


When the state of Malaya expanded itself to become the present Malaysia, it annexed Sabah unilaterally. But it continued to pay rent to the Sulu sultanate until recently, when the Sabah issue was revived. Which means that Malaysia recognized the Sulu sultanate’s ownership of Sabah.

When the sultanate asked that the rent be increased because of inflation, Malaysia stopped paying altogether. Until that time, Malaysia was still paying the same amount that the British North Borneo Co. paid to the sultanate centuries ago. Thus, the sultanate told Malaysia to leave Sabah. It refused, and still refuses to do so.

When a tenant refuses to pay rent for your property and also refuses to leave, what would you do? You file an ejectment suit in court. For independent nations that court is the International Court of Justice (ICJ). So the Philippine government gave notice that it would file a case in the ICJ.

Unfortunately, unlike in ordinary courts, in the ICJ, both sides must agree to submit themselves to its jurisdiction. If one side refuses to do that, there can be no litigation. And in the Sabah issue, Malaysia refuses to agree to take the case to the ICJ. But it continues to hold on to—and to claim—Sabah.

Apparently, Malaysia knows that it will lose the case in the ICJ because the facts are clearly in favor of the Philippines. So it just continues to illegally squat on Sabah. Might is right. The case is no different from squatters who refuse to leave somebody else’s property and threaten to fight anybody who would try to eject them.

If this were Europe or the Middle East, nations would have sent troops to forcibly occupy the contested territory, as Russia has recently done in the Crimea, which is part of Ukraine, but which Russian troops have recently occupied. A century ago, Hitler did the same thing to Poland, occupied a German-speaking region that was part of Poland. That led to World War II wherein Germany and its Axis allies—Italy and Japan—were defeated by the Allied Forces.

However, the Philippines does not have the might to invade Sabah. So during the administration of President Ferdinand Marcos, the government decided to train commandos to be sent to Sabah and wage a guerrilla war against Malaysia. The commandos were secretly being trained in Corregidor when it was discovered and this led to the Jabidah Massacre.


Recently, the aging Sultan of Sulu, fed up with waiting and the failure of the Philippine government to assert ownership of Sabah, sent Muslim fighters, led by a brother of his, to infiltrate Sabah and wage a guerrilla war, hoping that local residents, composed mostly of Filipinos from Sulu, would join them.

Unfortunately, the guerrilla force was discovered when it landed in Sabah and the ensuing months-long fighting between the Filipino Muslims and the Malaysian forces decimated the Sulu sultanate’s small force.

Fast forward to the “comprehensive peace agreement” between the Philippine government and the MILF. The agreement is silent on the Sabah issue which is very important to Muslims in Mindanao. How will the new Bangsamoro and the Philippine government assert ownership of Sabah? Will they dare to offend Malaysia, the principal sponsor of the peace talks? In fact, I think that is the principal reason Malaysia decided to referee the peace talks. Its prime minister, despite his government’s preoccupation with the frantic search for the missing Malaysia Airlines jetliner, took the time to come here to witness the signing of the agreement.

Sabah is bigger than the island of Luzon. It has an annual income of $70 billion (yes, $70 billion). It has vast stores of oil underground and abundant timberlands aboveground. Wow! That is enough to wipe out poverty in the whole Philippines, not to say bring economic progress to Mindanao. No wonder Malaysia refuses to let go.

Another question that the comprehensive peace agreement has failed to answer or has ignored: What will happen to the Tripoli Agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) of Nur Misuari? That accord was sponsored by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) which is composed of all Muslim nations in the world. Malaysia is only one of its members.

The OIC recognizes the MNLF and Nur Misuari as the representatives of the Mindanao Muslims. What will happen if the OIC insists that the Philippine government follow the Tripoli Agreement? This is an international agreement that the Philippines is obliged to follow.

And what will happen if the Bangsamoro

Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), a breakaway group of the MILF, grows in strength and continues to fight, as the MILF, a breakaway group of the MNLF, had done? Will the Philippine government hold another round of peace talks with the BIFF?

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TAGS: Bangsamoro, Global Nation, Malaysia, MILF, news, Sabah
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