Fighting and Fallout in Sabah
Image Credit: Danny Pata

Fighting and Fallout in Sabah


When about 200 supporters of the Sultan of Sulu packed M16s into boats and made the one-hour crossing from Sulu in the southern Philippines to Lahad Datu in Malaysian Borneo’s eastern Sabah on February 9, no-one took much notice.

Initial international media reports a few days later were vague about who the group was. Even in their native Philippines, many had no idea what Jamalul Kiram III, who claims to be the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, was prepared to fight for. But they certainly do now.

Even before Malaysia attacked the group with fighter jets on Tuesday,the crisis had escalated and spread rapidly. Last Friday, 12 Filipinos and two Malaysian counter-terrorism police were killed in a shootout, while six more police and 11 Filipinos, including two imams, were reportedly killed 190 miles (300 km) south in Semporna. Meanwhile, the sultan’s son and the group’s leader Raja Muda Kiram have dispersed with surviving members of the group. Political fallout in both the Philippines and Malaysia has grown by the day.

The standoff has not only tested Philippine-Malaysia ties, it has also had implications for the imminent elections in both countries as well as the fragile Philippines peace process.

Dating back to the late 19th century when the British ruled Malaya, the sultan’s claim to parts of the eastern half of Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo) has resurrected one of the biggest sovereignty disputes by land area in the region. Successive Malaysian and Philippine administrations have found it much simpler to sweep the issue under the carpet than resolve it once and for all.

It’s a status quo that Abraham Idjirani, secretary-general and spokesperson for the sultanate, says Manila has tried to preserve in the name of safeguarding ties with Kuala Lumpur as the dispute has come to a boil.

“The only request from both sides is to surrender – this appears to be the policy of both governments,” he told The Diplomat on Sunday after the violence spread to Semporna.

In trying to rein in the sultan, Philippine President Benigno Aquino has changed his stance almost daily. At first, he tried to entice the sultan’s men back. Then, Aquino said his administration would seek to prosecute the sultan and his followers. After violence erupted last Friday he said all would be forgotten, if only the group would return.

As the election campaign kicks off ahead of Senate and mayoral polls in mid-May, Aquino and his ruling Liberal Party are coming under growing criticism by the press, public and an opposition keen to score political points.

An opinion article in the Philippines Star called Aquino “clueless” on Sunday, while the Opposition National Alliance – opponents for the Senate race – complained of “arrogance” in dealings with the sultan during a press briefing the same day.

March 30, 2013 at 00:00

I am very disappointed on what the Philippine Government was doing on the Sabah issue. It looks like Mr. Aquino is siding on Malaysia rather than the his own countrymen. It's very humilliating for him because he chose to side with the Malaysians. When Sultan Kiram sent a letter regarding the said issue..he doesn't take care of it and lost it but the subpoena of the National Bureau of Investigation for the Kiram family was not lost or forgotten. I think Mr. Aquino does'nt know the History of our country or he doesn't want to affiliate his name to the late president Marcos which is the last president who take stand for our rights in Sabah

March 25, 2013 at 04:32

No More Silent Nights for malaysia from now on. What a pity!

March 12, 2013 at 15:26

@ Al.

Actually there is no limitation to the agreement between the Sultanate of Sulu and the North Borneo Company because the agreement is effective to the "last day of time".  Furthermore, the agreement is perpetuated through the successors to North Borneo Company.  This means Malaysia can succeed to North Borneo Company and pass it to Sabah or whomever.  Therefore, as far as the agreement goes, as long as Malaysia paid the "rent" it can maintain the "lease" forever.  And the heirs to the Sultan of Sulu have no legal right to take possession of Sabah.

Furthermorre, ICJ will not give Sabah to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu because the UN will recognize the right to self-determination over any old laws or agreements.  Therefore, even if Malaysia agreed to go to the ICJ, the chances of Philippines winning sovereignty over Sabah is practically nil.


March 12, 2013 at 06:35

Fernando wrote:

March 10, 2013 at 10:10 pm

Actually if necessary it can be paid its just a matter of financial engineering and I'm sure given the size of the deal banks will be in a hurry to do it. Given the level of our reserves you can securitize the future revenue stream from the area. Its one reason Malaysia is not willing to go to ICJ, if that revenue stream is lost their governments budget will be sorely strained if not ruined.


Liang's comment:

There are 3 major sources of income in Sabah.

1. offshore petroleum

2. oil palm

3. tourism.

Most of the offshore petroleum comes from illegal poaching of Chinese oil.  China should shut these illegal oil rigs down.  The oil palm plantations are owned and operated mostly by Chinese.  Tourism is around Mt. Kinabalu.  If Philippines took over Sabah then it will probably make life impossible for the Chinese planters who will quickly leave.  Then all the plantations will shut down and no profits can be made.  This is what happened in Indonesia when the Indonesians drove out the Chinese and took over the Chinese plantations.  Millions of acres of oil palm plantation in Indonesia simply stopped producing due to bad management and theft.  So the Indonesians gained nothing by forcing out the Chinese.  They just figuratively "killed the goose that laid the golden eggs."  So the same thing will happen if Philippines took over Sabah.

In the end, Philippines will gain nothing.  It will gain no petroleum because China will reclaim its sovereignty inside the 9-Dotted Lines.  It will gain no incomes from the oil palm plantations.  The tourism industry might continue to operate but with reduced efficiency and reduced profit.  So, overall Sabah will just collapse down to a level that is the same or even lower than Philippines itself.  And Philippines government will never find the money to repaid Malaysia.  In the end, even the Filipinos in Sabah would call for China to take over Sabah so that they can make wages higher than those in the Philippines.

It is like Malaysia taking over Singapore.  Within a few years, all the rich Singaporeans would have left and there is nobody left to manage all the companies and Singapore would be no richer than Kuala Lumpur and may be even worse.

March 12, 2013 at 06:16

Below is a quote of the view of the International Court of Justice or ICJ which is self-explanatory.  Obviously it doesn't matter what the original agreement was between the Sultan of Sulu and the British North Borneo.  No outside entities can claim sovereignty over a large group of people who want to be independent.  Especially, if the group of people have been self-governing for a long time like Sabah has been.  Therefore, in the eyes of the ICJ, the agreements and treaties not participated by the Sabahan people are simply ineffective.  Therefore, Philippines would be wise to write Sabah off as a historical incidence.  Or if it wants to create more goodwill, it can champion the rights of the Chinese in Sabah for more equal rights.  And Philippines could also call for more Chinese immigration into Sabah.  This will make Filipinos more welcomed in Sabah and promote more trade and investment between Sabah and Philippines.   That is the wisest way Philippines can benefit from Sabah.

This is further reinforced by the International Court of Justice view that,

…historic title, no matter how persuasively claimed on the basis of old legal instruments and exercises 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.

March 12, 2013 at 05:55

Cyrus wrote:

March 10, 2013 at 2:38 am

I am a Filipino, Sabah was given to the Sultan of Sulu by the Sultan of Brunei for helping Brunei in its war. Back then the Sultan of Sulu with its Tausug Warriors were well known as excellent warriors (it is of the same tribe the Tausugs that the Americans invented the .45 pistol) when the Sultanate of Sulu got defeated by the Republic of the Philippines it agreed to forfeit all lands and claims to the Republic of the Philippines. Hence, President Magsaysay filed a claim for Sabah which was being rented out by the British from the Sultan but was turned over to Malaysia after their colonial era ended in Malaya, even though it was suppose to be returned to the lessee.


Liang's comment:

First, colonial days were long over.  Sabah cannot be traded and bartered by outsiders like a piece of meat.  Sabahans have the right to self-determination based on the principle of Uti Possidetis which says those who are in possession should remain in possession of the territory.  All the agreements and treaties by UK, Spain, America, Malaysia and the Sultanate of Sulu and Philippines were made without the consent and approval of the Sabahans.  Therefore, under today's principle of self-determination sanctioned by the UN, those treaties and agreements should not have anymore legal force.

And even if the agreement made by the Sultanate of Sulu and British North Borneo Company still has legal standing and even presuming it was "leased", still the agreement was for perpetuity or "until the end of time" to the original "lessee" and their "their heirs, associates, successors".  Therefore, there is no legal reason for the "lease" to end simply because UK ended its colonial era over North Borneo.  UK can legally transfer the "lease" to Malaysia as its "successor".  And as long as the "rent" is paid the "lease" will continue forever.  But as I said, such "lease" is now ineffective because it is against the UN sanctioned human rights of self-determination.  Sabahan people cannot be bound today by agreements made without their consent over hundreds of years ago.



Cyrus wrote:

Today, I would think it is ill advised to press the claim today especially since the largest concern is Chinese incursions in our very own territory having the Government entangled in this dispute would not be advisable. Though, historically and rightfully Sabah belongs to the Sultan of Sulu there is no way that the Sultan of Sulu or the Republic of the Philippines can even pay Malaysia for the development that has been done in Sabah during the Malaysian sovereignty there.


Liang's comment:

Philippines have no right to any Chinese sovereign territories within the well defined 9-Dotted Lines.  Those territories are Chinese sovereignt territories for thousands of years.

Sabah's economy is mainly produced by the Chinese.  Without the Chinese, Sabah economy would simply collapse.  Philippines is very greedy to grab Sabah because it thinks it can gain the wealth produced there.  But once Philippines got its hands on Sabah it will simply ruin it within a few years due to the rampant corruption that is even much worse than Malaysian corruption.  Currently, some 1 million or more Filipinos are living in Sabah and making much higher wages than in Philippines.  But if Philippines took over Sabah then Sabahan economy would collapse and Filipinos in Sabah would be making even lower wages than Filipinos in Philippines.

Many people think I'm being racist, but the truth is it is the Chinese who are producing all the wealth around S. E. Asia and particularly in Sabah.  Therefore, even if Philippines gained control over Sabah, unless it can maintain the Chinese population and give them the rights and freedom and protection to do business, the Chinese would leave Sabah even faster.  And when the Chinese left, Sabah economy would drop lower than in Philippines itself.  In the end, Philippines would not gain anything.

March 12, 2013 at 05:18

Dan Pendleton wrote:

March 11, 2013 at 8:44 pm

Why is the Malaysian govt paying 5300 ringgits per annum to the Kiram family for rent? Does this not imply that one is the tenant and the other the landlord? How then can the tenant presume to be the "owner" of the property?


It is not important whether Sabah was "leased" as Kiram family claims or "ceded" as Malaysia claims.  What is important is that Sabah is no longer under the control of the Kiram family nor under the control of the Philippines government.  This is because the agreement made in 1878 between the then Sultan of Sulu and British North Borneo Company was to last "forever".  So what difference does it make if the agreement was to "cede" or to "lease" Sabah FOREVER?  Even if it were "leased", Sabah can simply continue to lease it forever by paying 5,300 Malaysian dollar a year.  And the Philippines government has no legal right to any part of Sabah in anything.

But it is detestable that millions of people of Sabah should have no say in the determination of their own destiny.  Most people are offended at the idea of slave trade where people are bought and sold.  But is it not the same if Sabahan people are simply bartered by outsiders?  All the agreements and treaties were made between UK, Spain, America and the Sultanate of Sulu and Philippines.  It seems the world is willing to let non-Sabahans determine the fate of the Sabahans.  Obviously, the Sabahans themselves can simply reject all these outside agreements and declare their own indpendence.


Dan Pendleton
March 11, 2013 at 20:44

Why is the Malaysian govt paying 5300 ringgits per annum to the Kiram family for rent? Does this not imply that one is the tenant and the other the landlord? How then can the tenant presume to be the "owner" of the property?

March 11, 2013 at 09:25

war for sabah will be an ongoing effort — forever

March 11, 2013 at 03:02

awaw wrote:

March 10, 2013 at 3:05 pm

Sabah belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu. It was LEASED to a british company by the then-sultan for fears that the British would attack. It was ILLEGALLY ANNEXED to Malaysia when it gained independence. Read your history.

Malaysia is paying LEASE MONEY annually. The latest payment made was in 2012, in Standard Chatered Cheque. This payment alone is obviously proof that Malaysia legally recognizes the Sultanates legal right over Sabah.


The Sultanate BTW has turned over rights to the Republic of the Philippines, so the Philippines has right to pursue the claim. Malaysia continues to deny taking this conflict to the International Court for fears that it may lose Sabah.

The the purpose of the Kirams to internationalize the issue. And they succeeded in doing so. Unfortunately, Malaysia is too aggresive to start the whole gun battle.


Even if it were "rent", so what?  Malaysia can just continue to pay rent forever.  Kiram family still cannot demand the return of Sabah unilaterally.  Furthermore, if Kiram family "turned over" Sabah to Philippines then the contract would have become null and void.  That means, since the Sultanate of Sulu had become defunct, all contract between the Sultanate of Sulu and Malaysia becomes null and void and there is no need for Malaysia to pay anything to anybody.  First because Kiram family no longer represents the Sultanate of Sulu.  And second the Philippines government cannot be successor to the Sultanate of Sulu.  Therefore, Malaysia can stop payment to the Kiram family.  And Sabah should be recognized as an independent sovereign political entity which can choose its own association or federation with any other political entities.

Kiram family is the one who used force first.  The Kiram family should be arrested for war crimes.  They should be tried for war crimes that caused the deaths of dozens of people and receive the appropriate punishments.

March 10, 2013 at 23:42

The sultanate of Sulu was not defeated by the Spanish or the Americans it was only after that it was defeated against the Armed Forces of the Philippines.

March 10, 2013 at 23:41

We have already established the Claim that is why in Philippine Maps Sabah is shown though boundaries are set identifying that Sabah is not yet a part of the Philippines. The claim is in dormancy mainly because the Philippines doesn't want to rock the ASEAN Unity.

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