Welcome to another edition of “What’s the Deal?” the blog that explains the Sultanate of Sulu so you don’t have to!
In this week’s post, we’ll look at a fascinating small scale invasion by a rag-tag militant group from the southern Philippines into northeast Malaysia. This crusade-like adventure and violent standoff has led to full scale action by the Malaysian military and a guerrilla style standoff.
We’ll examine just exactly what is occurring in this south east asian country and how the incident is straining Filipino-Malay relations.
The Current: A Slighted Sultan
On February 9, a group of 200 men with a territorial claim and a bone to pick, crossed the Sulu Sea via motor-boat from the Southern Philippines to the Sabah state of Malaysia on the northeastern part of the island of Borneo. The armed group quietly took control of the small village of Kampung Tanduo without firing a shot and claimed the Sabah State for the proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III.
The armed group, calling themselves the Sulu Royal Militia, is claiming the Sabah state of Malaysia actually belongs to the former rulers of the land, the Sulu kingdom. The Sultan of Sulu and his followers felt slighted for not being included in land agreements in an October 2012 peace treaty between the Philippines and another Islamic rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
As the incident unfolded over the past month, the swashbuckling has turned into full scale combat as the rebels ignored demands from both the Philippines and Malaysia to leave Sabah.
The skirmish then turned very nasty as 27 people including 8 Malaysian police were killed in ambush attacks by the Sulu Royal Militia in the first week of March, causing the Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to call the Malaysian military into action to forcefully remove the rebels. Even after air strikes and ground forces had retaken the small villages where the Sulu had taken cover, the rebels remain in Sabah – entrenched in a sporadic guerrilla fight which has now taken 78 lives.
To make matters worse, the aforementioned Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), that had previously sought independence from the Philippines, has apparently joined the fight with the rebels. After calls for peace from the international community, Kiram III called for a ceasefire on March 7, but it has yet to be heeded by either side as Malaysia refuses to end their military pursuit until the Sulu militia surrenders. The Razak government has resorted to transporting locals in the conflict area to safer areas to avoid civilian bloodshed, but it is unclear how the area will return to normalcy anytime soon.
Historical Claims and Colonial Gains
The Sulu claim to Sabah, however crude, is historically accurate. The Sulu Sultanate had controlled the Sabah state and surrounding areas of the present day Philippine islands between the 15th and 19th Centuries.
The Sulu came to control their southeast asian claim by marrying into another kingdom from Sumatra in modern Indonesia. Sayyid Abu Bakr Abirin, a nobleman and lawyer, married the daughter of a local chief in 1457 and developed the Sulu region into an established sultanate as a formidable maritime power around the modern day Philippine and Malay archipelagos. Sayyid became the monarch and Islamic religious leader of the Tausug people under the name of the Sulu sultanate. Sayyid’s descendents grew the monarchy to include northern Borneo and several Philippine islands.
The Sulu faced immediate pressure from European commercial expansion including the Dutch East India Company, the British North Borneo Company, and most prominently, the Spanish empire, which had control over the Philippines starting in 1521 (thanks to Magellan). The Sulu sultanate was often the victim of euro expansion, with the capital city of Jolo captured several times. The Spanish Jesuit missionaries even were successful in baptizing the Sulu Sultan in 1750, changing his name to King Ferdinand. The Spanish later attacked Sulu from Manila in 1848 and again in 1851 to capture southern Philippine islands and the island of Borneo. The peace treaty that was signed in 1851 was interpreted differently by the Sulu and by Spain and the international community – the sultan believing it was a cessation of hostilities while Spain understood the treaty meant Sulu accepted Spanish sovereignty. A 2003 review of this treaty by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) observes that Sulu had relinquished over all territorial possessions to Spain.
Specifically for the island of Borneo which had been under Sulu possession until the Spanish conflict, an 1878 agreement effectively leased the Borneo territory (the area in conflict today) to the British North Borneo Company. This was cemented by the Madrid Protocol of 1885, which relinquished Spanish control over the Borneo territory to the administration of the British trading company – with the leasing payment to the Sulu.
When Malaysia won its independence from Britain in 1957, Sabah state came under the leasing control of Malaysia, which has continued to pay the yearly fee. The Sulu territory under Spanish control in the Philippines came under American control in 1902 following the Spanish-American War, and then in 1947, under Filipino control following independence for the island nation. The sovereignty of the Philippines over the Sulu and other peoples in some of the islands has resulted in armed struggles such as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) fight in the southern Philippine islands and the Sulu fight today.
So legally, Sabah state and the rest of the Sulu claim is nullified by these old treaties; but this is complicated by the misinterpretations of the treaty terms and by the resulting independent states of Malaysia and the Philippines who gained Sulu territory from colonialism.
Conclusion: Just a Quixotic Adventure?
Beyond the physical fight, politics has surfaced from this skirmish-turned armed forces mission. Malaysia is facing a general election in June and the opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim, in Malaysia’s parliament is heavily criticizing Prime Minister Razak’s handling of the conflict as “weak leadership” over the lack of security. Sabah state happens to be a hotly contested political landscape and the Razak government doesn’t want to lose support from Sabah’s 800,000 mostly Filipino residents. The latest move by Malaysia to relocate Sabah residents away from the violence is a good indicator of the state’s importance.
The incident has regional implications as well. As diplomats race back and forth between Manila and Kuala Lumpur to broker a peace deal, it’s clear that the relationship between the Philippines and Malaysia is under duress due to this incident. As member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), both countries, can’t afford to lose the support of the other country. This is particularly the case with the Philippines, which is locked in their own territorial dispute with China over uninhabited islets in the South China Sea and could use a Malaysian ASEAN vote. In addition, the MILF’s involvement with the incident could threaten last year’s peace deal with the Philippines.
The ‘homecoming’ of sorts for the Sultan’s supporters has also reignited a long-running dispute among Sulu over who exactly is the rightful heir to the sultanate. There were 9 heirs to the sultanate in the early 20th Century, and when Sulu lost its control of its territory, the throne was never officially designated – so controversy has persisted since then.
Some, who approve of the vigilante fight in Borneo, don’t recognize Jamalul Kiram III as the true sultanate and say Jamalul is using the act to make his title legitimate to the world. Other Sulu don’t recognize Kiram as the sultan, nor his aim to retake former land of the Sultanate by force.
Both countries must arrive at solutions which recognize the claims of the Sulu and other ethnic minorities, but also must be realistic in their negotiations. The lesson for the Philippines and Malaysia is to not wait until a violent outbreak erupts to include a group in negotiations.
Whether political motives or international pressure, the Sulu have certainly stirred up quite the mess in an unusual story of adventure, history, and monarchies that are still kicking.
Until the next slighted sultan,
Your faithful historian,
Eric G. Prileson
Sources and Further Reads:
P. N. Abinales, Donna J. Amoroso (2005). State And Society In The Philippines State and Society in East Asia G – Reference, Information and Interdisciplinary Subjects Series(Illustrated ed.). Rowman & Littlefield. p. 97
International Court of Justice (2003). Summaries of Judgments, Advisory Opinions, and Orders of the International Court of Justice, 1997-2002 Document (United Nations)