The Lahad Datu (Sabah) Stand Off

February 21, 2013

Lahad Datu (Sabah) Stand Off: A View from The Philippines



There is more to the ongoing standoff between Malaysian forces and some 300 armed men holed up in a coastal village in Sabah than meets the eye.  The latter are Filipino nationals, though they identify themselves as members of the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.”  They have announced that they sailed to Sabah to reclaim their rightful homeland.

Heaven forbid that any harm should befall them.  For, that will play right into the hands of those who, for some reason or other, wish to derail the current peace effort in Mindanao and foment a rift between Malaysia and the Philippines.

The Malaysian security sandiwara

The relations between the two countries have significantly improved after Malaysia began hosting the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.  Malaysia has a clear interest in the political stabilization of neighboring Muslim Mindanao.

In the past, Muslim rebels routinely sought sanctuary in Malaysian territory, and their presence there not only strained relations with the Philippines but also posed the danger of locally spreading a politicized Islam.  Of course, beyond all this, the Malaysian investment in goodwill, properly acknowledged as a Filipino debt of gratitude, serves to undercut any move to activate a long-standing irritant in the relations of the two countries.

The Sultan’s heirs have been pressing the Philippine government to actively pursue its sovereign claim to Sabah.  Keeping the issue alive will greatly bolster their demand to be justly compensated as the rightful private owners of the territory. The Philippine claim is solely anchored on the property rights asserted by the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu. This claim was formally advanced by President Diosdado Macapagal in 1962.  That was the year before the British formally relinquished their colonial hold on Malaya, North Borneo, Sarawak, and the straits settlements (including Singapore), paving the way for the establishment of Malaysia as an independent state. Singapore subsequently left the Malaysian federation.

“North Borneo,” writes the historian Onofre D. Corpuz, “was crucial to the new Malaysia; without it, the latter would have an overriding Chinese majority in its population, because Singapore was to be part of Malaysia.  The United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan had interests in the new state based on global strategic considerations.  The claim would be pursued, if at all, in diplomatic isolation.  The future of the Philippine claim, into the 1980s, was not bright.”  Sure enough, the keen desire of the Philippine government to forge strong regional ties with its major Southeast Asian neighbors thereafter consigned the issue to the margins of Philippine foreign policy.

It has been a long time since the Sabah claim has been openly discussed in the media or, even less, officially taken up by any administration.  Yet, no Philippine President has dared to categorically renounce the country’s claim to this territory. The young generation of Filipinos, who are unaware of the historic claim of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, may thus be forgiven if they perceive the group of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III as no different from those syndicates who now and then invade expensive real estate in Metro Manila waving fictitious royal titles.  But, this particular claim is by no means founded on fantasy.

North Borneo was acquired by the Sultanate of Sulu sometime in the 17th century as a gift from the Sultan of Brunei, in appreciation for the former’s help in successfully quelling a local rebellion against the latter’s rule. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu agreed to lease the property to a British company.  Malaysia argues that in 1885, Spain renounced all claims of sovereignty over the whole of Borneo, in exchange for British recognition of Spanish sovereignty over the entire Sulu archipelago.  Its lawyers contend, moreover, that the Sultanate of Sulu ended in 1936 following the death of the last Sultan.


Yet, since its formation in 1963, the Malaysian state has thought it proper to hand over every year to the lawyers of the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu a check for 5,300 Malaysian ringgit (about P70,000 at the current exchange rate).  Before that, except for the period between 1936 and 1950, the payment was made by the British North Borneo Co., in accordance with the terms of a lease agreement between the British company and the heirs of the Sultan.  Today, Malaysia calls the token payment “cession,” meaning payment made in exchange for the ceding of property rights.  The Sultan’s descendants, however, continue to refer to it as “rent,” for obvious reasons. Regardless, the amount is ridiculous.  The territory in question covers approximately 30,000 square miles.

The Sultan’s heirs have a pending petition with the United Nations for the return of Sabah to the family.  This may be a way of compelling Malaysia to pay a substantially higher rent, or an offer to quit all claims in exchange for a huge payment.  But, it is also possible that Malaysia intends to stop paying altogether in order to put to rest any doubt about Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah. Unfortunately, the UN has not acted on the petition.

The “invasion” led by the brother of the current Sultan is clearly an attempt to shove the issue into the faces of the two governments, neither of which relishes being dictated upon by the heirs of an archaic sultanate. Still, both governments must realize that they have an interest in ending this standoff without firing a single shot. A messy end to this impasse could stoke ethnic resentments and needlessly inflame nationalist sentiments.

20 thoughts on “The Lahad Datu (Sabah) Stand Off

  1. One small town so much complexities. Wonder if parliament dare to dissolve if these 300 jokers (wasn’t it suppose to be 100) decided not to go home.

  2. Forget the conspiracy theory. The real story is that the Sulu Sultanate got left out of the Bangsamoro deal because his demands would make the deal impossible. While they UMNO/BN probably thinking of illegal citizen vote in the coming GE and trying send message that only BN promise security, the whole story really tells UMNO/BN incompetence and mess.

    I beg to differ that legally Malaysia has the claim to Sabah. Malaysia claim is practical rather than legal. If the paper trail is followed properly, Philippine has the claim but to pursue it practically is difficult maybe even impossible for the Philippines.

    The real story is that if you examine all the things UMNO/BN has done all these years UMNO/BN, they have pursued a practical solution to this issue rather than actually a legal one. – NOT surprising given all the other things they have done.

    THIS is a reminder that UMNO/BN ways of taking short-cuts in the name of practicality comes back to haunt you again and again and eventually they just blow up in their face. They have been lucky that is all. If things had gone other ways, their ways would have blown up long ago.

    How lucky do you feel with UMNO/BN anymore?

  3. Perhaps, najib has bought the wrong military hardware. He should not buy scorpene that can’t sink. Remember HMS Prince of Wales, one of the newest battlecruiser then was sunk in South China Sea while defending Malaya during World War 2

    If can’t buy Blue Thunder, buy Airwolf……Mach 1 helicopter…..Hahahahaha!

    Semper Fi should fly that too

  4. Lahad Datu akin to Gaza Strip? Sri Tujuh.
    What a capital idea!! Never thought of that!
    Perhaps, when the RCI does it’s due diligence and decide on the Jus Soli/Jus Sanguinus or just Plain Ole Jus Octo-buminus FUBAR of the Project M, we can transport the ‘illegals’ there? Surround them with razor wire, steel and guns?

    After all Malaysia, in the past was never timid in shooting boat people outta the water, but not before robbing or else raping the women before feeding them to sharks. That is why ‘sharks-fin’ should never be on AnyOnes’ menu..

    Let’s put it this way. There is no way the Philippines is gonna to go head to head with Malaysia wrt Sovereignty of Sabah. Such Lembek ideas are the result of Legalistic and Historical Masturbation. After all, possession is nine-tenths of any equation – ask any geopolitical realist.

    The only other way out is Autonomy for Sabah.. But then, there is a possibility of East Timor-like insurrection. Or is that too ‘unthinkable’?

  5. The sulu kingdom is defunct , ceased to exist many moons ago… The administrators of BNB Co as they were , was only demonstrating a gesture of diplomatic goodwill when they decided to remit a sum of fees made annualy to the sulu sea pirates of yesteryears…. Payments were to be made to the sulu king for a maximum of years , was part of the agreement…. In anticipation of this , sabah state treasury in the late 70s made a lumpsum disbursement to the heirs of the sultanate… Get it straight , Kuala Lumpur was never writing those cheques.

  6. Ayoooo … these people are armed to the teeth plus they are battle hardened. Better for us to slow talk and settle. Shouldnt be a problem for our armed forces to kill off these 100/200+ chaps but are we prepared to face whats to come after?? There are already millions of Filipinos/Indons already living in Msia and if we handle this the wrong way, we may be stucked in a long drawn conflict. These are tough and fierce chaps with experience in battle. They are not those hapless Indonesian/Cambodian maids Malaysians are used to beat up.

  7. Philippine claim on Sabah? Then Kedah should take back Penang. The Kedah sultan merely leased Penang for a sum of money (essentially protection money against the marauding pirates to the north). One school of thought has it that the Kedah sultan was conned into signing. That notwithstanding when the Brtis got kicked out of Malaya, Penang reverts back to the grantor. That’s Property Law 101.

  8. Grantor grants a lease for the life of A. So when A is no longer life in being, title reverts back to the grantor. The grantor is the Sultan of Kedah and his heirs.

  9. The timing really sucks, for whatever reason(s) this group of armed militias have, to decide to pay Sabah an unwelcome visit.

    I am inclined to give the government the benefit of doubt, in its method of approach to handle the incident peacefully, when necessary, to avoid bloodshed.

    Simply because any problem however great, if handled correctly, can become no problem and conversely, any problem however small, if mishandled, can escalate into a big problem.

    Looking at the bigger picture, the merchants of war and their dogs are probably drooling and praying to the Devil that this incident will flare up and thus, the Philippines will be drawn into conflict with Malaysia and betcha Uncle Sam will eagerly come in to aid his ally and hence, to build up his military presence here.

    This will be a great time to test how
    strong, the ASEAN spirit of regional neutrality and solidarity is, to keep the big boys out of S.E.Asia.

    This is one way of looking at the picture.

    Another way will be that the whole incident was staged so that Najib, facing his biggest political battle ever in the upcoming GE, will be able to kill two birds with one stone.
    The incident allows a distraction to pacify an angry rakyat that has been baying for BN’s blood over the treacherous Project IC, as well as to give Najib the credit he needs and political mileage for handling the incident smoothly without spilling a single drop of blood.

  10. Look ocho, no one’s talking about a shooting war between Malaysia-Philippines. This is plain old ‘piracy’ and ‘ransom’, dressed up in historical-legalistic mumbo jumbo.

    Peaceful repatriation should be the aim, and ROP is more than willing to do the needful. Their Navy have so far ‘sealed’ their international waters to further incursions by the Tausugs-Suluks and they can send in a transport.

    The deeper motives for the dithering response fro the Malaysian side, it’s as you say – out of political expediency because of the massive problems of UMNO’s own making. And it’s because the leadership is weak, indecisive and lacking moral-ethical direction.

    While the Mutual Defence Treaty (US-Philippines) remains intact; there is also the curious 5 Power Defence Arrangement, between UK, Oz, ANZ, Singapore and M’sia, signed in 1971, which excludes East Malaysia. Why is that? GOK (God only knows).. SEATO became extinct in 1977.

  11. maybe this is truly unfair for the sultan…of sulu.sabah must be turn to the rightful owner this if we follow international justice…

  12. Jack, do you have any idea who the Tausugs/Suluks are? They will emasculate anyone who they deem beneath them or re-circumcise those already circumcised. Even the Bajaus are scared of them. if you don’t believe me, go ask the out-going Chief Speaker of the Malaysian Parliament and the Attorney general. They are stubborn and besides their Orthodox Islam have a culture that is certainly very alien to the average Melayu.

    The indigenous KDM generally regard them as ‘uncivilized’ pirates and opportunists, but there are more than half a million of their ‘sleepers’ working all over Sabah and even in the Peninsula, mostly in menial jobs (laborers).

    Malaysia’s dabbling with the recent MILF-Manila Peace Accord has something to do with this. The eunuch HM has thus handed the problem over to his equally clueless colleague, the FM. At the rate things are going, i support the Gaza Option.

  13. “Look ocho, no one’s talking about a shooting war between Malaysia “… -Philippines. C.L. Familiaris February 23, 2013 at 11:42 am

    I humbly beg to differ. What is this joker in the vid clip below trying to insinuate then? I am yet to hear any viable alternative solution to the situation from him or from anyone else for that matter.

    …..”After all Malaysia, in the past was never timid in shooting boat people outta the water, “….
    – C.L. Familiaris February 22, 2013 at 1:38 pm
    May I now infer that you were merely adding a touch of sarcasm to spice up your morning kopi o kau 🙂

    The Mutual Defence Treaty (US-Philippines), 5 Power Defence Arrangement , ANZUS or SEATO are all irrelevant if the ASEAN spirit of solidarity and regional neutrality remains strong and intact and its members remain true to the core principles of ASEAN which includes:

    “-Mutual respect for the independence, sovereignty, equality, territorial integrity, and national identity of all nations;
    -The right of every State to lead its national existence free from external interference, subversion, or coercion;
    -Non-interference in the internal affairs of one another;
    -Settlement of differences or disputes by peaceful manner;
    -Renunciation of the threat or use of force; and
    -Effective cooperation among themselves.”

    BTW, possession may be nine tenth of the law but the Sultan of Sulu has a case IF the Project IC scam inadvertently lead to a nasty chain of events depending on how much damage was done – if the numbers are there in Sabah, the supporters of the Sultan can push for a national referendum to fight for secession via the auspicious intercession of the U.N – that is democracy for you, thanks to that grandson of mamak tongkang . After all isn’t that, U.N. peoples referndum, one of the mechanisms that led to the formation of Malaysia?

    Look, CLF, the point I am trying to put across here is that it makes no sense to over react and be foolhardy but to remain calm and collective when one is trying to diffuse a potentially explosive device to avoid self injury. How explosive the device is or whether it is genuine or a dud, the jury is still out or as you put it, G.O.K., at this stage. 🙂

  14. And if the peaceful method fails, depending on how great the appetite of the Suluks is for adventure, what is the other alternative – armed insurrection?
    Bingo, that is when the merchants of death will step up to the plate to play ball.

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