• Sat. May 8th, 2021

Understanding the Sabah (North Borneo) dispute

After a long absence, Sabah has resurfaced in the news after a United States Embassy tweet referred to the disputed territory as part of Malaysia. Naturally, that elicited a response from Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., who said on Twitter that Sabah belongs to the Philippines. His tweet snowballed, with Malaysia summoning the Philippine ambassador to Kuala Lumpur and with Secretary Locsin again tweeting that he would retaliate by also sending for the Malaysian envoy in Manila. Secretary Locsin followed up with a statement reiterating that the Philippines will not abandon its claim to Sabah.

The diplomatic row signals that now is the time to address the Sabah issue that has been a problem for Asean and for Philippine-Malaysia relations since 1962. Until Secretary Locsin’s tweet, many Filipinos have also forgotten that President Rodrigo Duterte had even promised to assert the Philippine claim during the 2016 campaign.

Then in July, it was reported that Malaysia stopped paying the RM5,300 (about $1,200 or P61,000) given annually since 1903 to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu. Before that from 1878, the amount paid was RM5,000. The Philippines viewed the money as rental payment, while the Malaysians saw it as cession money.

In any case, we note with regret that no howls of protest were heard when Malaysia’s annual payments ceased. Also missing were the legal champions of Philippine claims such as former Supreme Court justice Antonio Carpio and others who had been outspoken on the issue over territories disputed with China. There were no ribbings that the Philippines had become part of Malaysia.

Most of the country seems to have forgotten that there are Filipinos residing in Sabah unlike in the rocks and reefs in the West Philippine Sea. Sabah is home to about 35 percent of non-Malaysians, including a substantial number of Filipino Muslims. Just in July, Malaysia “deported” 5,000 of them from Sabah to Zamboanga because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Tough go

Admittedly, the Philippine claim has been hobbled by setbacks and local politics. During the term of President Diosdado Macapagal, the issue was raised at the United Nations. He also suspended diplomatic relations with Kuala Lumpur.

Later, President Ferdinand Marcos sought to bring the issue to the International Court of Justice, but Malaysia refused to be a litigant, arguing that the dispute had been settled by a democratic and constitutional process. But in 1966, Mr. Marcos recognized Malaysia, which, Malaysians say, was tantamount to accepting that Sabah was part of its federation. Press reports in 1977 said Mr. Marcos had indicated that he might drop the Philippine claim at the Asean meeting in Kuala Lumpur. But he did not follow through on that.

The New Straits Times (NST) reported that in 1983, Sen. Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr. sought Malaysia’s help in ousting Mr. Marcos and, once in power, he would drop the Philippine claim to Sabah. But Senator Aquino was assassinated later that year.

The NST suggested that his widow, President Corazon Aquino, might have fulfilled the promise to Malaysia. She oversaw the drafting of a new Constitution, which amended the definition of the national territory of the Philippines written in the 1973 Constitution. The new 1987 Constitution dropped the phrase “… all the other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic or legal title …” from Article 1 that could have supported the Sabah claim.

The Aquinos’ son, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino 3rd, was conspicuously silent about Sabah during his term as president. Some had wondered if there was an understood agreement with Malaysia, which helped the Philippines sign a peace agreement with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front in 2012. That was a highlight of Mr. Aquino’s term, even though some had disapproved of allowing Malaysia, which supported the Muslim secessionists in southern Mindanao, to play a role in peace talks that led to the agreement.

Like the official policy adopted since the time of Mr. Marcos, the Sabah issue should be settled peacefully.

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