Sulu, sultan, and sovereignty

HISTORY MATTERS - Todd Sales Lucero - The Freeman

Today in 1915, Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram I signed an agreement with the governor-general’s representative, Frank W. Carpenter, ceding his authority over the Sulu Archipelago. I only learned more about Sulu when my college Philippine History professor told our class that the first treaty signed by the Sultanate and the Americans, the Bates Treaty, was deceptive, leading to the decades-long problems our country has had in the south.

Sulu’s history and their dealings with foreign powers show a pattern of unfair treatment and deception. While Sulu was never fully controlled by the Spaniards, in 1878 Sultan Jamal ul-Azam signed an agreement with the British North Borneo Company concerning Sabah. The Sabah issue, while having much longer territorial questions, can be traced to this agreement where a single word, pajakkan, was translated differently. Spanish linguists in 1878 and anthropologists H. Otley Beyer and Harold Conklin in 1946 translated pajakkan as “to lease”. However, historian Najeeb Saleeby in 1908 translated it as “to grant and cede”, which the British and Malaysians accepted as the legal definition of pajakkan. In that same year, Sulu and Spain also signed a treaty where the Spanish version declared that it held authority over Sulu, while the Tausug version used “protectorate” rather than “dependency”. These translation disparities would have consequences in the territories ceded to the United States by Spain in 1899.

Because the sultanate no longer exists legally, there has been no definitive legitimate sultan of Sulu since 1915. The 1915 Carpenter Agreement stripped the Sultan of his political powers, so Jamalul Kiram II was considered as the last recognized ruler of Sulu until 1962 when President Macapagal’s government once more recognized its ruler at that time, Sultan Esmail Kiram I. President Marcos continued this recognition in 1974 through Memorandum Order 427 and acknowledged Sultan Mahakuttah Kiram, son of Esmail Kiram I, with his eldest son, Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, recognized as his legitimate heir. However, over the years, several other members of the family have also pressed their claims to the throne, creating more complications for the sultanate.

In 2016, the five claimant branches signed a covenant of unity. They were called the Royal Council of the Sulu Sultanate and made their stand on various issues such as the ownership of Sabah and declared that they were not abandoning their claim over Sabah. All five claimants are descendants Sulu’s first sultan, Sharif ul-Hashim, and come from three distinct lines of descent. Two are from the House of Bahjin, Ibrahim Q. Bahjin-Shakirullah II and Muizuddin Jainal Abirin Bahjin, descended from Sultan Aliyuddin I. Another, Mohammad Venizar Julkarnain Jainal Abirin, is from Sultan Shakirullah I and belongs to the House of Abirin. The remaining two, Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram and Phugdalun Kiram II, are from the House of Kiram, descending from the daughter of Sultan Shariffudin, Dayang-Dayang Fatima Piandao.

The united front, however, was short-lived and Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram revived his claim as the legitimate sultan, being the son of the last recognized sultan by the Philippine government. In an interview by this writer with Sultan Muedzul, he expressed his full support for the Philippine government and said that his desire is for the recognition of the historical and traditional role of the Sultanate. It is his hope that the government would help them with Sabah, an issue once again revived when in March 2022 a French court of arbitration ordered the Malaysian government to pay $14.9 billion to the legal descendants of Jamalul Kiram II.

It would be interesting to see what steps President Ferdinand R. Marcos, Jr. would take about last year’s ruling about Sabah. His father was the last Philippine president to recognize and support the sultanate, and as his father’s son we shall see if he would continue to revive the Philippines’s claim over Sabah or take an altogether different approach towards it.


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