MS 30th Anniversary XXX

Mishandling the Sabah issue

There appears to be a consensus among analysts and observers of the Sabah dispute after followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III occupied a village called Lahad Datu in Sabah and after some have died in firefight.  The Aquino administration indeed committed a series of blunders. Let’s rewind a bit. The sultan felt snubbed in the signing of the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement, which the administration touted as the key to achieving peace in Mindanao.  In fact the Sultan claimed he had sent not one but three letters to Malacañang where he expressed his desire to be consulted on the peace issue. President Aquino said the letters must have been lost in the bureaucratic maze. What a lame excuse. Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa serves as some kind of a Grand Central Station where all letters to the President pass through. Palace insiders however say that Ochoa indeed received the letters but he passed them through Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Teresita Deles.  I cannot confirm this, but I am told that Deles decided not to let the President know about it.  She kept the letter, believing it would have no impact on the peace process. Mr. Aquino reportedly berated Deles when he learned about what happened.  A bureaucrat with delicadeza would have resigned – Deles obviously does not have it. Thus the Sultan, perhaps thinking that it occupying a village in Sabah is the only way for the government to acknowledge its rights, decided to send 200 of his followers to the disputed territory. There are 800,000 Filipino Muslims who have, legally or otherwise, made Sabah their home. Instead of being sensitive to the Sultan’s claim and to the plight of Filipinos in Sabah who were being threatened by Malaysian police, President Aquino went on television, flanked by Justice Secretary Leila de Lima and Interior and Local Government Secretary Mar Roxas, warning Kiram that he and his men could face charges for constitutional violations. He told them to come home. But the Sultan says Sabah is home. Don’t threaten Tausogs with arrest or criminal charges.  They are very proud, like Maguindanaoans and Maranaws. The stance taken by Malacañang made it look like it was siding with Malaysia. Who are advising President Aquino? It looks like he was not aware of the implications of events. Analysts say the issue is not just legal. What is the bottom line of the dispute? Historic and documentary evidence of ownership by the Sulu Sultanate over Sabah is clear and unmistakable. This is why Malaysia refuses to bring the matter to the International Court of Justice, or the United Nations. In 1704, the Sultan of Brunei sought support from the Sultan of Sulu to quell a rebellion in Brunei. In gratitude, the Sultan of Brunei gave North Borneo, as Sabah was called then, to the Sultan of Sulu. In 1874 or 174 years later, Baron Von de Overbeck leased North Borneo from the Sultan of  Sulu for 5,300 Mexican pieces of gold a year. Overbeck created the British North Borneo Co., a chartered company by Great Britain. After the death of Sultan Jamalul Kiram in 1936, the British company stopped the leased payments, but a Session Court in North Borneo ordered resumption of payment. When North Borneo was renamed Sabah, despite objections of the Philippine government, Sabah became part of the Federation of Malaysia. When the Federation of Malaysia was created in 1963, Malaysia converted the stipulated rental payment into Malaysian ringgit (now equivalent to P77,000) but not the equivalent of 5,300 pieces of Mexican gold. And this is where the core of the dispute lies. The lease agreement used the word “padjak.” After 85 years of paying rent to the Sultanate of Sulu since 1878, Malaysia in 1963 conveniently misinterpreted the word “padjak” to mean cession or sale. The Sulu Sultanate insists “padjak” means rent, and that it is not a sale.  And why does Malaysia continue to pay rent to the Sulu Sultanate? Malaysia’s position is untenable. As a lawyer, I  know that a sale needs a specific price. Thus, the continuous indefinite annual payment of P77,000 by Malaysia to the Sultanate cannot by any stretch of the imagination be a definite sale by any legal definition. This leads me to ask: Didn’t the legal advisers of President Aquino ever consider the legal implications of the Sabah claims? Obviously not since that would rock the boat in our political and economic relations with Malaysia, especially now that Malaysia is brokering the Bangsamoro Framework Agreement. What is clear is that President Aquino deemed our relations with Malaysia more important than the Sultanate of Sulu. The President threatened to arrest and charge Kiram and his followers. That does not make sense. Why didn’t Malacañang organize a special task force to attend to the dispute? Who appears anti-Filipino now? I have been told that even Christians in Mindanao are sympathizing with the Sultanate of Sulu. “Honor is above life,” the Sultan said. I hope I am wrong on this, but I fear this will have a negative impact on the peace process in Mindanao and our relations with Malaysia.
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