Tuesday, March 5, 2013


How do you claim something that you say is yours?

Infographic by Agence France Presse
I believe this is the big question we should all ask ourselves amid this territorial crisis in North Borneo. While this is not the first time the Philippines is embroiled in a territorial fiasco, the way Filipinos are reacting to the issue reflects very little learning from our experiences from last year's Scarborough Shoal standoff with China.

On February 11, around 200 members of the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu (some armed) occupied the Malaysian village of Tanduo in Lahad Datu Province, Sabah, Malaysia. They are claiming ownership of Sabah (formerly called North Borneo) which is according to historical sources originally belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu.

Historically, the Sultan of Brunei gave North Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu during the 1300s after the latter's support in quelling a revolt in the former's territory. In 1878, the Sultan of Sulu signed a lease agreement with the representatives of the British North Borneo Company, allowing them to establish a trading post in the region and make us of its natural resources. In the lease agreement, the key term used is "padjak" which in Tausug (the language of Sulu) means "lease or rent". However, the British took the word's meaning as "grant and cede".

Hence, believing that North Borneo was granted to them, the British established a protectorate in the region in 1888. After World War II, North Borneo became a British Crown Colony, which it passed to the newly formed independent Malaysia in 1957. The Malaysian government has been continuously paying the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu an annual fee of 5,300 Malaysian ringgit. Despite this, the Philippines, under the American Commonwealth and during the Third Republic, has continuously claimed North Borneo as part of its territory, citing the agreement between the Sultan of Sulu and the British North Borneo Company.

Jamalul Kiram III (Photo by MyStar)

Since February 11, Malaysia, North Borneo, and the Philippines are under hostage by the Sultanate of Sulu --hostages because all three places and its people are being forced at gunpoint to act with consideration of their reservations about the issue. 

The Philippines is a hostage because it is being forced to support a violent and extralegal means of claiming North Borneo, an act which could hurt the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front which Malaysia brokered last year. While it has a strong historical claim to North Borneo, the Sultanate of Sulu did not inform the Philippine government of its plans to assert its claims nor of its occupation of the region. While the Sultanate of Sulu has expressed that it is claiming North Borneo on behalf of the Philippines, the lack of coordination with Philippine authorities disproves otherwise the integrity of this motive. The Philippine government has always supported a peaceful claim to the region, a position which is now clearly not being espoused by the Sultanate and its forces.

Malaysia is a hostage because while it currently exercises jurisdiction over North Borneo, it is being forced to relinquish its jurisdiction without consideration to the fact that it has exercised such jurisdiction for the past 50 years. Malaysia has contributed much to the development of the region's economy, infrastructure, and stability--all of which could suffer if transferred under the jurisdiction of a Sultanate which has done little to improve the economic and political status of Sulu itself.

North Borneo and its citizens are hostages because the Sultanate never consulted them whether they want to be part of it or remain part of Malaysia. In 1963, both the UK sponsored Cobbold Commission and the United Nations Malaysia Assessment Mission found that a substantial majority of North Borneans chose to be part of Malaysia. If that isn't a definitive statement to answer the Sultanate's claims then I don't know what will.

Now, if the Sultanate claims that it is only peacefully claiming what is rightfully theirs, shouldn't they discuss this with the current residents? Why bring arms and vow to fight to the death? This is issue is not as simple as evicting a tenant from your property. Millions of Malays were born and grew up in this region for the last 50 years and forcibly removing them could lead to even more violence than we have right now.


Photo by Reuters
Clearly, the Sultanate and its forces are the aggressors in this crisis. While they have legitimate claims, nobody can justify the violent means they are using to claim what they believe is rightfully theirs. It is not even clear who are the real benefactors of this assertion, if it is the Philippines or the only the Sultanate. They do not even have a clear vision of what to do with North Borneo once (and if in case) it acquires it.

How can we trust that these people are imbibed with a nationalistic sense in claiming these lands when it cannot even consult our own government prior to this standoff? How can we trust that these people are working for the interest of the Filipino people when it cannot even consult us on how we should properly approach this issue? How can we trust these people if they have the gun pointed at us while at the same time saying that they are only claiming what is rightfully theirs?


Unsurprisingly, we, the ever impulsive Filipino society, even have the guts to jump into this issue without common sense. Observing our responses in various social media and news websites, as well as the actions of Filipino hackers against their Malaysian counterparts, we are only emboldening a group of hostage-takers to justify their unjustifiable means of claiming North Borneo. By prodding the Kirams, we claim to be "nationalists" and "defenders of our country's sovereignty and patrimony".

When we mean "nationalist", do we mean doing actions that could possibly tarnish the reputation of our country among our neighbors? When we mean "nationalist", do we mean supporting violent and undiplomatic conduct regarding a sensitive issue? When we mean "nationalist", do we mean putting more fuel to the fire or trying to settle the issue calmly and with a grain of salt? We should all ask ourselves whether our reaction to the Sabah crisis is indeed nationalistic or not.


In the end, this writer supports the Philippine government's position in this crisis. While it is not relinquishing the country's claim over North Borneo, it is only right that the government condemn this undiplomatic and violent take over attempt. The writer sees very well how the Kirams are merely acting on discontent over unresolved issues concerning the recently drafter Bangsamoro Framework Agreement. I see how they are being prodded by men (and women) with political ambitions of their own and would like to take advantage of this conflict to discredit the government in time for the upcoming elections.

Let me reiterate my point: let us ask ourselves if what the Kirams did are really nationalistic and whether supporting their violent occupation is the nationalistic thing to do. Because if we truly are loving and loyal to our country, we shouldn't put this kind of embarrassment and danger to our own people. Whether we have a legitimate historical claim to it or not, no Filipino should die just because of a piece of land. TSS

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