It may look silly, but the “vacation” in Lahad Datu of the “Royal Sultanate Army” of Sulu should inspire the Philippine government to pursue a final settlement of the country’s claim to Sabah.
Most Filipinos are probably unaware that there is a sultanate with a royal army in the country, whose principal realm is one of the most impoverished, underdeveloped and violence-torn provinces.
Malaysia, however, recognizes the Sulu sultanate enough to continue paying rent for much of Sabah to the current sultan, Jamalul Kiram III, whose clan has held ancestral claim to North Borneo for several centuries.
In the 17th century, Sultan Bolkiah of Brunei, whose realm included Sabah (then known as North Borneo) as well as Sulu and even Manila, ceded large swaths of Borneo to the Sulu sultan. The British East India Company forged a deal with the Sultan of Sulu to set up a trading post in the eastern part of Sabah in 1761. Within that century, the Sulu sultanate ceded its territories to Spanish colonizers. In 1848, a part of North Borneo belonging to the Sultan of Brunei was ceded to Britain.
The Philippine claim is anchored on the ancestral heritage of the Sulu sultanate.
Malaysia has largely shrugged off the claim. The people of Sabah went along with Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore to form the Federation of Malaysia in 1963.
Since then, the people of Sabah have considered themselves Malaysians. But there has been no official move from the Philippines to drop its claim.
This is probably because of the rent that the Sulu sultanate continues to receive from Malaysia.
This is also probably because no Philippine president wants to be known as the one who formally dropped the country’s claim to an island rich in natural resources and home to a World Heritage Site. Sabah is the second largest of the 13 states in the Malaysian federation.
But the Philippines also does not want to ruin its healthy ties with Malaysia. Both countries are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and Malaysia plays a key role in the ongoing peace initiative with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
This role in the peace process is reportedly being eyed by administration officials as one of the reasons for the Sulu sultanate’s current activities in Sabah, with the not-so-invisible hand of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chieftain Nur Misuari seen in the incident.
Misuari and the MNLF, whose peace agreement with the government is recognized by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, reportedly fear being marginalized if a peace deal is signed by the Aquino administration with the MILF.
There are, however, ongoing efforts to bring the MNLF into the peace process with the MILF, with representatives of the two groups meeting overseas last year. So Misuari’s perceived role in the Sabah incident is reportedly puzzling, if not infuriating, P-Noy’s administration.
When Sultan Kiram ran for senator under the Arroyo administration’s Team Unity in 2007, he was reportedly told to shut up on his sultanate’s claim to Sabah.
This time it looks like Kiram sees no need to zip his mouth. He not only is talking about his heritage, but has also told his followers, holed up in Lahad Datu in their version of “Occupy Sabah,” to stay put.
Some administration officials may find the standoff bizarre, but it may eventually force P-Noy to at least lay the groundwork for a final settlement of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah.
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YEAR OF THE SNAKE: Before the season is over, here’s a happy Lunar New Year to those who celebrate the event.
Singapore Ambassador Hirubalan V.P. and his wife Mano celebrated the second day of the Year of the Water Snake, on Feb. 11, by hosting a despedida at their residence for the Philippines’ new ambassador to China, Erlinda Basilio.
The event opened with a communal Chinese raw fish salad dish prepared by all the guests, called “yu sheng” – two characters meaning abundance and increase, respectively, in Mandarin.
Traditionally served on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year, which is “ren ri” or the birthday of all mankind, yu sheng is now served throughout the new year period.
With long chopsticks, each guest placed a salad ingredient in a large bowl at the center of a round table, which faced the main entrance to the residence. Before placing the ingredient, the guest uttered a New Year greeting for wealth and the fulfillment of wishes.
Raw fish, we were told, was for abundance throughout the year. The other ingredients, meant to attract luck and prosperity, included pepper, sugar, carrots, citrus and white radish. Shredded green cabbage symbolized eternal youth. Ground peanuts and sesame seeds were then sprinkled on the salad, symbolizing a household filled with gold and silver.
When the salad was assembled, the gathering poked the chopsticks into the dish and tossed everything as high as possible seven times while shouting all the New Year greetings. The tossing is “lo hei” in Cantonese, which means “to rise” or increase.
(Belated) happy New Year! (It’s Lunar, not Chinese New Year, Vietnamese Ambassador Nguyen Vu Tu emphasized).
For Basilio, it will be a Chinese New Year in the coming years. She leaves for Beijing on March 15. I’m not sure if picking the Ides of March for her move to China augurs well for bilateral relations.