Al Jazeera Reports: Sultanate of Sulu–Pawn or Legacy?

March 7, 2013 03-06-13

Al Jazeera Reports: Sultanate of Sulu– Pawn or Legacy?

Malaysia has responded with troops and fighter jets to an ancient and deadly claim to a remote corner of Borneo. It marked a dramatic conclusion to a bizarre three-week siege that appeared to catch the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia off guard.

Part of the reason [for the lack of information] is that they [the Filipinos] do not want any information to leak out. As you know the Filipinos are relaying reports of what is happening on the ground to television stations in Manila, so I think they are trying to keep a tactical advantage by keeping quiet.

– James Chin, Monash University

A group of Filipino rebels pitched up in a seaside village on the island of Borneo, and asserted their ancestral ownership rights to the territory.

The self-proclaimed Royal Army of Sulu are from the remote Philippine island province of Sulu. They made the short journey by boat to Borneo Island in February, landing in Lahad Datu in Sabah state.

The Philippines had urged Malaysia to show maximum restraint in dealing with the armed group but the killing of a number of policemen saw Malaysia respond with significant force.

This territorial dispute can be traced back to the 15th century. Back then, the region was divided into two main Sultanates. In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei gave an area of Borneo Island to the Sultan of Sulu. And a deal in 1878 further complicated matters.

I think it’s got very little to do with the actual territorial dispute. The crucial context for all of this is the attempt to settle the long-running civil war in the southern Philippines, in Mindanao … it seems the clan associated with the Sultanate of Sulu has been excluded from these [framework agreement] discussions … and so it appears to have tried leverage this ancient claim – which it has been silent on for the last 40 years or so – to try and compel some kind of concession from Manila or embarrass the government…

– Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary and Westfield University

A British trading company agreed to pay Sulu a nominal lease for the area, known as Sabah. Borneo later became part of Malaysia but Sulu became part of the Philippines.

Years on, Malaysia still pays Sulu some $1,500 a year. And modern-daySultan Jamalul Kiram III followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, have revived their ancestral right to the region.

This issue has come at a critical time for Malaysia and the Philippines. The two nations have much in common, but the Sabah territorial dispute has been a thorn in relations for decades.

The neighbours are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and share a long history of diplomatic ties. Malaysia has been brokering peace talks between the Philippine government and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front since 2001.

And both have elections coming up, with a lot riding on how this whole issue was resolved. So, what is behind the brazen invasion by Sulu’s rag tag rebels? And how will the conflict affect regional relations?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: James Chin, a Professor of Political Science at Monash University and a commentator on Malaysian affairs; Harry Roque, a Law Professor from the University of the Philippines; and Lee Jones, a Senior Lecturer in International Politics at Queen Mary and Westfield University, and author of the book ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia.

“They [the Malaysians] have resorted to airstrikes which means that there is now a breach of human rights law because the use of airstrikes, in my mind, is not proportional and is not absolutely necessary and because they used aircrafts they have also invoked the applicability of international humanitarian law which now gives obligation for Malaysian authorities to ensure the principle of distinction – meaning they should only target combatants and not innocent civillians.”–Harry Roque, University of the Philippines.

8 thoughts on “Al Jazeera Reports: Sultanate of Sulu–Pawn or Legacy?

  1. For your info Mr Harry Roque,

    The motley bunch of bandits loss their sense of humanity when they attacked the policemen and brutally mutilated their bodies. No, the Malaysians Forces did not breach any law here, they are defending our territorial integrity. And by the way this was not a legitimate claim as much as the Pinoys would like it to be. The Sulu Sultanate has no sovereignty over any part of Philippines let alone Malaysia.

    If we (Malaysians) have to acknowledge this sovereignty then will the Pinoys also acknowledge the Sovereignty of the descendants of Srivijaya (from Sumatra, Indonesia) who were Rulers of South East Asia much earlier than the Sulus?

    No this is not about sovereignty…..nor Sulu claims…

    In the intricate act of subterfuge the San Miguel Breweries are reportedly eyeing the oil riches over the vast span of South East Asia…Hmmm now wasn’t there a significant interest held by this Brewery in PETRON? Now who was the son of a PM who was involved in these Companies? And who else from the Philippines side?

    As always follow the money and you get the clearer picture of what are the motives and who are actually behind this….

  2. The world has seen a lot of ex sultans, kings, queens, emperors who had been deposed, overthrown or who no longer can make legitimate claims to return to power. The self-styled sultan of Sulu is just one of them.

    Under international law self-determination is more important than historical claims.

    From the International Court of Justice, “…historic title, no matter how persuasively claimed on the basis of old legal instruments and exercise of authority, cannot — except in the most extraordinary circumstances — prevail in law over the rights of non-self-governing people to claim independence and establish their sovereignty through the exercise of bona fide self determination…”.

    In short, the rights of the people of Sabah has more legal weight than any historical claim. The report of the 1962 Cobbold Commission on the wishes of the people of Sarawak and North Borneo concluded that more than two-thirds of the population supported the formation of Malaysia, now a full pledged member of the United Nations.

    The question of the Sabah claim should no longer arise except only perhaps for purposes of academic discussion.

    However, the only issue that will continue to generate a lot debates in Sarawak and Sabah is the erosion of their rights as “equal partners” in the federation and as spelt out in the 18 and 20-point agreements respectively.

    At the same time, for argument sake, why would Sabah want to be part of Sulu, knowing fully well the southern Philippines had been marginalized all along by the central government in Manila and has been left far behind in all aspects of development?

  3. Air Strikes to deal with a few hundred men , might be bit over the top. they should sent in the army in the very first place and not border police force. Why aren’t the troops driving this instead of politicians??

  4. Harry Roque or Harry Rogue? the malaysian side resorted to airstrikes after eight policemen were shot by the aggressors and nearly after three weeks of waiting.
    would you define policeman as combatans or civilians?
    if someone trespasses into your home and has clear intention of harming you or your property then you have every right to fight back. the choice of weapon is arbitrary.
    and please explain ‘the applicability of international humanitarian laws’ to the families of the dead policemen.

  5. Lee Jones puts the perspective properly although he could have said more on the fact the Kiram’s action as far as international opinion is concern, is overwhelmingly seen as merely foolish and unintelligent.

  6. Orang Jauh’s analysis makes sense to me.

    However, couldn’t the fact that Malaysia’s consistent payment of annual “rent” for Sabah to the Sulu Sultanate be argued as Malaysia’s recognition of the non-ownership of Sabah.

    After all, one does not pay rent for something one owns.

    I’m not making any claims for Sabah. Like Orang Jauh says, it can only be for academic discussion.

  7. ” As always , follow the money and you will get a clearer picture of what are the motives and who is actually behind this …. ” – Capt Sudhir.

    Good point . The self styled Sultan of Sulu is a kidney patient and seeks dialisis treatment 3 times weekly. Since he can’t afford to pay for this treatment out of his own pocket, a Philippine Government company pays for it .

    With this as the background , President Aquino has asked how this Sultan managed to raise 200,000 pesos to pay for the first two boats/ferries that transported the Sultan’ fighters to Lahad Datu!

    Today Saiful’s father sang like a song bird about sodomy 2. Earlier, Deepak Jaikishan did . Next i expect Razak Baginda to come out into the open and do the same.

    Keep wondering when someone will ” screw ” Mahathir!

  8. referring to the quote of James Chin, Monash University, i think its the other way around, it is Malaysia who doesn’t want to leak information and prevents foreign media to cover the issue in Sabah.
    on the issue of the moro conflict in the southern Philippines, it is well known to everybody that the catalyst to that issue is the Jabidah massacre, again in connection to the Sabah Claim.

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