THE recent stand-off in Malaysia's Sabah, where more than 100 armed men from the Philippines entered a village and refused to leave last month, has brought into focus a territorial dispute that has been dormant for half a century.
The men, identifying themselves as the Royal Sulu Sultanate Army, declared to the Malaysian security forces who surrounded them in Lahad Datu that they were there to reclaim the ancestral land of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of several claimants to the defunct Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.
They defied calls by the Philippine President Benigno Aquino to return home and rejected offers by the Malaysian authorities to withdraw from the village, saying that they were prepared to fight if they were forcefully evicted from Sabah, formerly known as North Borneo.
After three tense weeks, the stand-off worsened to a violent confrontation between the intruders and security forces, that killed two Malaysian policemen and 12 of the armed men last Friday.
This incident will certainly affect the final stages of Malaysia- mediated peace negotiations with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in Mindanao, southern Philippines.
Kept under wraps for the past five decades, the issue of claims to Sabah has now resurfaced with such urgency that it can no longer be conveniently swept under the carpet.
The stand-off has raised questions as to why it took place at a sensitive time when both Malaysia and the Philippines are about to hold major elections.
One theory that is making the rounds is that the ailing Sultan Jamalul Kiram III was trying to reinforce his claims to the sultanate. There have been several claimants to the throne in recent years, none of whom have gained international recognition as the Sulu Sultanate ended after the death of the last sultan in 1936.
Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is apparently upset that he was not included in the negotiations with the MILF last October, and he planned the "reclaim" of Sabah in order to undermine the peace process. Reports from Manila have claimed he was being secretly backed by Nur Misuari, leader of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), which signed a peace deal with Manila in 1996, as he himself was also left out in the negotiations with the MILF, its breakaway group. Several of Misuari's MNLF fighters are among the intruders.
Another theory is that the heirs of the sultanate staged the armed publicity stunt that turned ugly to demand a renegotiation of the "rent" of RM5,300 (S$2,130) which they received from Malaysia annually for the Sabah "lease" made during British rule.
Over the years, they have written to the Malaysian government requesting a larger sum - as much as US$855 million (S$1.06 billion) - but to no avail.
Malaysia has never officially acknowledged such payment but analysts say that it is a gesture of goodwill by Kuala Lumpur to the descendants of the sultanate and not a recognition of their claim of sovereignty over Sabah.
The incident has raised concern that it could spark a renewed MNLF militancy with support from Tausug immigrants, who are natives of Sulu, in the Malaysian state in solidarity with their Filipino cousins.
In the worst-case scenario, some analysts say the MNLF could revive its rebellion against the authorities in Sabah and the Philippines that would have long- term implications on ties between the two countries and the region.
As it is, the stand-off has reignited demands in the Philippines to place the Sabah claims on high profile in its relations with Malaysia. Even President Aquino has ordered his legal team to study the claims, generating wider interest on the issue.
Kuala Lumpur too felt the heat from its citizens, who demanded stern action against the intruders so as to uphold Malaysian sovereignty in Sabah and from having to answer criticisms of security lapses that had allowed the armed men to enter the state without firing a shot.
Amid the stand-off were questions raised as to who really owns Sabah. It is 1,143km from Manila, 1,495km from Singapore, and 1,678km from Kuala Lumpur. By geographical distance, Sabah is nearer to Manila than Malaysia's capital of Kuala Lumpur. Does it mean that Sabah belongs to the Philippines which includes the Sulu archipelago?
To understand the issue better, there is a need to look at the state's history. Sabah was a gift from the Sultan of Brunei for the Sulu Sultanate's help in quelling a rebellion in 1685.
The dispute has its origin in the signing of an agreement in 1878 between the Sulu Sultanate and a British company which "leased" the territory for a sum to be paid in perpetuity.
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. That placed Sabah under the British sphere of influence.
Over the years, the British colonial government succeeded the company, with Sabah becoming a Crown Colony in 1946 and later joining Malaya, Singapore and Sarawak in the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
The Philippine government came into the picture in September 1962 when an heir of the sultanate, Esmail Kiram, surrendered authority and sovereignty over Sabah to President Diosdado Macapagal's government. However, Manila has been hesitant in its approach to Sabah. At one stage, it secretly backed Moro militants to reclaim the territory. But at other times, it left the issue dormant in favour of better ties with Malaysia.
At the centre of the dispute is the 1878 agreement between the sultanate and the British company. Was Sabah leased or ceded to the British? Over the past five decades, the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate have been making unilateral claims to Sabah, including filing a petition at the United Nations for the return of the territory, arguing that the territory was only rented out. The recent intrusion into Sabah is the latest attempt to retake the land by the claimants.
The issue of the Sabah claim can no longer be placed on the back burner. Both Malaysia and the Philippines have to decide on a long-term solution. Seeking international arbitration through the International Court of Justice in The Hague may be one option. But this would require the consent of both sides to seek such recourse. This does not seem likely as both countries do not appear keen to take that path because of the risks involved should either party lose its claims.
Both countries must look for common ground to meet each other halfway and consider available options, including cash settlements, to solve the age-old issue.
As long as it is not settled, the issue will resurface because of the manoeuvrings of the sultanate's many descendants still struggling to reclaim the land of their ancestors.
This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 4, 2013
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