Sultan of Sulu revives claim over Sabah, 'patrimony of the Filipino people'

MANILA, Philippines - Nearly half a century since a Philippine president first made a for...

Sultan Jamalul Kiram III

MANILA, Philippines - Nearly half a century since a Philippine president first made a formal claim on North Borneo, the 34th sultan of Sulu and his closest advisers declared they are ready to revive a campaign to reclaim Sabah, as the territory has been known since Malaysia made it part of its federation.

Preparing for a rare public forum today (October 15) on the Sabah claim and its international ramifications, Sultan Esmail Dalus Kiram II described Sabah repeatedly as the “patrimony of the Filipino people,” and decried the failure of five administrations to push the claim even though the Sultanate had waived that prerogative in 1962 in favor of the republic, then represented by President Diosdado Macapagal.

The Sultanate of Sulu has various claimants put forward by factions within the sultanate and by the conflicting claims and interests of the Philippines and Malaysia. Esmail Dalus Kiram II is recognized by Manila.

In an exclusive interview with, Kiram said they joined the forum this Saturday afternoon, organized by the Pimentel Center for Local Governance at the University of Makati (UMAK), so that “we can let the Filipino people know, especially the majority of our brothers and sisters who are Christians,” about a legitimate, reasonable claim that has been “neglected.”

They hope, he said, the forum will help forge a consensus among Filipino stakeholders on how to proceed, given the over 50 years that Malaysia has possessed and benefited tremendously from the resource-rich territory that Britain “illegally” gave the federation.

The sultanate has always lamented that, even though only a private British company was leasing the territory from the sultanate, Britain “gave” the same to the nascent Malaysian federation. The best proof that neither Britain nor Malaysian ever owned North Borneo, say the sultan and his advisers, is the fact that until now, Malaysia pays annual rental to the sultanate, in checks in the amount of roughly $1,500 a year.

Since Macapagal filed the claim on behalf of the republic and the sultanate in 1962, and his successor Ferdinand Marcos pushed it to the point of planning an invasion that was botched by the Jabidah fiasco, the two presidents’ successors have all taken a benign attitude to the claim, even though “the weight of evidence, of history, lies with us,” said Kiram’s top political adviser, former Tawi-tawi governor Almarim Tillah.

Given this, much has to be done to, first, reconcile the positions of the Philippine government and the Sultanate “which it should have been actively representing,” and subsequent to that, pushing the claim in the proper international venues, notably in the International Court of Justice alongside a vigorous diplomatic campaign, according to the chairman of the Sultanate’s royal advisory council or Ruma Bechara, Fiscal Leasin Omar Basa.

Former Senate President Aquilino Pimentel Jr., who heads the Pimentel Center for Local Governance at UMAK that is hosting the Saturday symposium, is among those the Ruma Bechara had been informally consulting.

“We invited the Sultanate and other experts and stakeholders who can help refresh the national memory on a legitimate claim that has been sadly set aside; and going forward, outline possible courses of action and the scenarios that may confront us,” Pimentel told

Failure of Parens Patriae?

Basa said they have confidence in Pimentel because “he knows the dynamics” of the case, is a “true Mindanaoan, and is an international law expert.” He is one of the few people the sultan trusts to help them navigate waters that for the most part are uncharted, and which pose tremendous implications for the region, Basa added.

Basa lamented, as Tillah did, the failure of Presidents Corazon Aquino, Fidel Ramos, Joseph Estrada, and Gloria Macapagal Arroyo -- and now, it seems, President Benigno Aquino III, too -- to bring out the Sabah claim from the back burner. Apparently, he said, they put a premium instead on keeping the peace within the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), where the Philippines and Malaysia are among the five founding members.

“Under parens patriae the government is the father of the people. The Philippine government was given the trust of the sultanate, which hoped it would fight for its rights, for a territory that is rich in natural resources from which all Filipinos can benefit.” But, Basa added, “the Philippine government failed to prosecute the claim, so we’re studying other legal remedies.” He said some international law experts had told them there is nothing that stops the Sultanate of Sulu from now filing the claim on its own if it ultimately deems the government as too uncertain in its intentions.

Still, stressed Tillah, who is now president of the Philippine Islamic Society, “the sultanate has not closed the doors” completely on the Philippine government, despite the decades of official “indifference.”

“Being citizens of this country, we are willing to transfer to the Philippine government the sovereign rights while retaining proprietary rights,” Tillah said, stressing that North Borneo, once reclaimed, can “do so much to help improve the socioeconomic status of all Filipinos.”

First things first

But first, according to the Sultanate’s secretary general Abraham Idjirani, the matter of the special authority that the Sultanate granted the Philippine government during the Diosdado Macapagal presidency, and which it revoked in 1989, must be settled.

“The Philippine government cannot prosecute without first seeking a special power of attorney from the Sultanate of Sulu,” said Idjirani.

He pointed to the provisions of the 1962 document embodying the terms between the Macapagal government and the sultanate. “That provision said that should the Republic fail to recover North Borneo, then this transfer document shall ipso facto become null and void.” This is what was invoked when the sultanate revoked the authority in 1989, he explained.

China, Malaysia

While the administrations after Macapagal and Marcos were for the most part “indifferent” to the Sabah issue, China and Malaysia had reached out to the sultan on occasion.

In the mid-nineties Kiram travelled to a province in China where a Sulu ruler died during an official visit in 1417, leaving behind a couple hundreds of his entourage, who were later, according to some accounts, considered part of a Chinese minority.

Kiram saw the invitation to him as an effort by the Chinese to reach out to the sultanate -- and, according to some other accounts, possibly bolster its own claims on disputed areas in Southeast Asia by forging a “shared history” with the sultanate.

In 2003, Kiram was invited by then Prime Minister Mahathir to Kuala Lumpur, and he witnessed the turnover of power to Mahathir’s successor, Malaysia’s fifth prime minister Abdullah Badawi.

Asked if the invitation by KL signaled a tacit admission that the sultanate of Sulu was still the owner of North Borneo, Kiram merely smiled.

Still, asserted Kiram, today nothing is more important to him than being able to reclaim a prized territory that “is part of the patrimony of the Filipino people.” He prays this “historical injustice” can be redressed, so that all Filipinos can unite in the hope of a better future.

“In God’s own time,” as Tillah puts it, “we will get back Sabah.”



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