The Sabah stand-off: 300-year-old claim threatens Mindanao peace deal
For 50 years, the Philippine claim to Sabah in the former British North Borneo has remained dormant like a ticking time bomb. On February 12, this tranquility was disturbed when some 300 armed Filipinos led by Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu, landed at the seaside village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu town in Sabah after crossing the sea from the Philippines' southernmost province in the Sulu Archipelago.The expedition was reportedly launched to press the claim of the Sulu sultanate to Sabah, which President Aquino appeared to have shelved to avoid a confrontation with Malaysia, which has been brokering the government's peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
The landing threatened to wreck the framework agreement signed by the Aquino administration with the MILF, a "peace in our time" accord to create a Bangsamoro entity, carving out an autonomous Moro homeland from the sovereign territory of the Philippine republic.
The expedition also created a dangerous armed impasse as Sabah security forces surrounded the landing group, which refused demands to leave the village, saying it should not be expelled because Sabah is part of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. Negotiations are underway between Philippine and Malaysian authorities to prevent the stand-off from escalating into an explosive confrontation. The impasse has also reignited demands in the Philippines to put the claim to Sabah on high profile in the relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur - a step that may open rifts in Asean, of which the two countries are original founding members.
The Sultan of Sulu's heirs decided to press their claim to Sabah after reportedly feeling betrayed and left out in the peace process between the Aquino administration and the MILF.
Abraham Idjirani, secretary general and spokesperson of the sultanate, said the decision to show not just physical presence but actual occupation of Sabah came late last year, shortly after the Aquino administration signed the Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the MILF on October 15, reneging on a pledge to include the Sultan of Sulu's heirs in the talks. "The framework agreement was finished without even the shadow of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. They just pretended to consult us," said Idjirani.
The next thing the heirs knew, Idjirani said, the framework agreement had been signed without any mention of the "historic and sovereign rights of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo" in it. "Until the government includes the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, no lasting and significant peace will come to Mindanao," he said.
According to Idjirani, the signing of the framework agreement between the government and the MILF led to a "meeting of the minds" of the sultan's heirs on November 11 to unilaterally reclaim the territory.
It was during that meeting that Sultan Jamalul Kiram III issued the royal decree that authorised his brother's "journey" to Sabah. Among the 70 Tausug men rounded up by Malaysian authorities was Agbimuddin.
Over more than a century, the Tausug of Sulu have crossed the sea to Sabah, the former homeland of the sultanate, and had trade intercourse with the inhabitants.
Sabah was ceded to the Sultan of Sulu in 1704 by the Sultan of Brunei, as a reward for the former's help in crushing a rebellion in Brunei.
A series of lease transfers in the 1800s saw the rights to Sabah transferred to the British North Borneo Co then on to the British colonisers. When the British relinquished sovereignty in 1963, Sabah became part of Malaysia but also the focus of a territorial dispute with the Philippines. The Philippines lost interest in pressing its claim at the International Court of Justice in 1963. This vacuum opened the way for the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu to press their claim to Sabah on their own initiative.