Claiming Sabah
SKETCHES - Ana Marie Pamintuan () - September 2, 2002 - 12:00am
We all memorized these details in History class but forgot them as soon as the final exams were over:

• On Sept. 16, 1963, the Philippines broke diplomatic ties with the newly created Federation of Malaysia. The reason: Manila protested the results of a plebiscite in Sabah and Sarawak on Borneo island, which showed that the territories wanted to be part of Malaysia. Our president at the time: Diosdado Macapagal, father of the incumbent.

• On June 3, 1966, the man who defeated Macapagal, Ferdinand Marcos, re-established diplomatic ties with Malaysia, following an assurance from Kuala Lumpur that it would not oppose the elevation of the Philippine claim over Sabah to the World Court, or stop Manila from seeking peaceful arbitration to resolve the claim.
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For our troubles over Sabah we have the imperialist powers to blame. If you’re looking up the history of Sabah, you might find interesting differences in the way events are presented by Europeans and Asians. A British reference book says the British North Borneo Company had bought Sabah from the Sultan of Brunei in 1877. Our own historians say the sultan merely leased Sabah to the company on Jan. 22, 1878 for about 5,000 Malaysian dollars annually.

In 1930, the North Borneo High Court reportedly ruled that lease payments for Sabah should go to the Philippine government.

World War II paved the way for the end of the days of empire. One by one, Asian countries gained full independence — from Britain, the Netherlands, Portugal, and, in the case of the Philippines, from the United States. Just days before we became independent, however, the British government took over the British North Borneo Company on July 10, 1946. Among the company’s assets that were appropriated by the British Crown was Sabah.

Francis Burton Harrison, the US governor general who in 1946 was US special adviser to the Philippines, called the British move "an act of aggression" and noted that it disregarded the ownership claim of the sultan of Sulu. The Americans must have made a very meek protest, since staunch ally Britain shrugged off the noise and went on with business as usual.

In 1950, Macapagal joined two other congressmen in filing a resolution urging the government to get back Sabah from the British Crown. When Macapagal became president, he initiated closer ties among people of Malay stock, namely, citizens of the Philippines, Indonesia and what was then known as Malaya. Leaders of the three countries, called Maphilindo, issued a joint declaration on Aug. 6, 1963 in Manila.

The grouping supported the creation of the Federation of Malaysia, which would include Malaya, Singapore, North Borneo or Sabah and Sarawak — provided the people of the two Borneo territories chose to join the federation in a plebiscite. Even before the results of the plebiscite were known, however, the British and Malayan governments issued a joint statement to proceed with the creation of the Federation of Malaysia on Aug. 31, 1963.

The plebiscite pushed through anyway, under the auspices of the UN Secretariat. On Sept. 13 the governments of Maphilindo and Britain received the results from the UN Secretary General: Sabah and Sarawak wanted to join the Malaysian federation.
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Both the Philippines and Indonesia protested, saying British pressure influenced the results of the plebiscite. Our responses to the plebiscite are interesting: Macapagal broke ties with Malaysia while Indonesia went to war, launching a Konfrontasi in Sabah and Sarawak. Malaysia called in troops from Britain, Australia and New Zealand and the guerrilla war was crushed. Indonesian President Sukarno was overthrown and his successor Suharto ended the policy of confrontation in 1966.
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Now if we want to go back in time to support our claim over Sabah, this could be tricky. Remember, we are of the Malay race. The island of Sulu had been a trading post before the arrival of the Spaniards, with natives of the island bartering with Chinese and the people of what was called Old Malaysia, which included what we now know as Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and Singapore.

Islam was brought to Old Malaysia by an Arab scholar named Mudum in the 14th century. From his settlement in Malacca he moved to Sulu in 1380. He was followed a decade later by Rajah Baginda of Sumatra, who converted the natives of Sulu to Islam. About 60 years later, Abu Bakr arrived in Sulu from Palembang and married the rajah’s daughter. When the rajah died, Abu Bakr proclaimed himself the sultan of Sulu.

Elsewhere, Serif Kabungsuan sailed from Johore to our southern islands, married into an influential clan and proclaimed himself the first sultan of Mindanao.

Our historians say that in 1704 the sultan of Sulu, a descendant of Abu Bakr, sent 1,200 warriors to help the sultan of Brunei quell a rebellion in Sabah. In gratitude, the Brunei sultan gave Sabah to the Sultanate of Sulu. So why did the British North Borneo Company lease Sabah from the sultan of Brunei nearly two centuries later?
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Since we put our claim on ice for more than three decades, we could have a weak case if we seek international arbitration over Sabah.

If we decide to pursue our claim anyway, what will the Malaysians do? Can we go to war? I’m sure Malaysia’s pugnacious leader Mahathir Mohamad would not want to lose Sabah on the eve of his announced retirement. We’re all friendly neighbors under the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, but just in case, Mahathir is sure to deploy his troops to Sabah. And what will we send? We don’t even have enough ships to fetch the thousands of Filipinos being deported from Sabah.

Some of our lawmakers are bleating that our foreign policy is based on fear. But how can you project strength when you have the weakest military in the region? We can’t even drive away a platoon of Chinese from a reef in the South China Sea that disappears during high tide.

So call Uncle Sam. But Washington is preoccupied with Iraq, and the Sabah problem isn’t even part of the US-led war on international terror.

Also, aren’t we supposed to be independent? We have to fight our own wars. We can shame Malaysia into stopping its maltreatment of Filipinos in Sabah. To achieve more than that, however, we will need ammunition that we don’t have.

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