For centuries, Filipino Muslims suffered as second class citizens in their own homeland as national leaders ignored, neglected and set aside their rights.
Even after Rodrigo Duterte installed former rebels belonging to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) as leaders of another experimental regional government — the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) – the region still has no fiscal independence. The national government continues to hold influence over its politics and economy.
But the biggest injustice is the central government’s seeming reluctance to recognize the Muslim minority’s proud heritage and to fight for their rights.
It was unthinkable for national leaders to set aside the country’s claim on behalf of the Sultanate of Sulu over a portion of territory in Sabah in the eastern state of Malaysia on the northern tip of Borneo island.
For over half a century, the Philippines has not pursued the claims, taking into consideration political, security and diplomatic relations with Malaysia.
It is a great disservice for Filipino Muslims to set aside the Sabah claims especially now that Kuala Lumpur has stopped paying the 5,300 ringgit annual rent it pays to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
After the Sultanate launched an unsuccessful “invasion” in Lahad Datu in early 2013, Malaysia punished the heirs by withholding the annual rent.
It has also strengthened its Eastern Military Command and expelled tens of thousands of undocumented Filipino migrants seeking economic opportunities as well as sanctuary n Sabah.
Every two weeks until October, the Philippine has been taking back hundreds of illegals, returning them to their homes in Tawi-tawi, Sulu, Basilan and mainland Mindanao.
Malaysia found the coronavirus pandemic as an excuse to send them back to reduce a potential security threat in the only state in Malaysia without a king, a tacit recognition that the state’s ruler is in the Philippines.
Last month, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. engaged his Malaysian counterpart in a duel over Twitter when he said Sabah belongs to the Philippines.
The social media exchanges escalated into a formal diplomatic protest, which now questioned not only Sabah but the continental shelf in the South China Sea as the Philippines and Malaysia have overlapping exclusive economic zone (EEZ) claims.
The Philippines has a legitimate claim over a huge chunk of the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah, which belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu and was only leased to a British trading company in 1878.
The Sultanate’s ownership on Sabah was well-documented and affirmed in 1939 by a Malaysian court.
The Sabah claim could be even stronger than the arbitration case over the South China Sea filed by the Philippines in 2013 against China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague.
A large chunk of Sabah became part of the Sultanate of Sulu in the 17th century when the territory was given by the Sultan of Brunei as a reward for helping quell a rebellion in the kingdom.
In 1878, British traders signed an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to lease the property which was later transferred to the British government, making it a colony.
Spain, which colonized the Philippines for more than three hundred years, gave up its claims on the territory in a deal with Great Britain and Germany in exchange for the two countries’ recognition of its sovereignty over the Philippines.
But the American governor-general in the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century protested the Madrid agreement because Spain never ruled over the Sultanate since the late 16th century.
When the Sultanate of Sulu became part of the Philippines, Manila acquired sovereignty not only on the whole of Mindanao but Sabah as well.
Even before Malaysia was formed after its independence from the United Kingdom a decade after the end of the Second World War, the Philippines had already laid claim on Sabah.
The claim was formally made by then President Diosdado Macapagal but Malaysia was quick to hold a referendum that showed the people in Sabah opted to join the Muslim majority Malaysia than the Christian-dominated Philippines.
The late dictator Ferdinand Marcos attempted a more violent approach to reclaim Sabah but it ended in a failure and an embarrassment when the Jabidah massacre was exposed in 1968.
The incident gave Malaysia an excuse to support the Muslim rebellion in the south, providing arms, training and sanctuary to Nur Misuari’s Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF).
Relations improved after Marcos was toppled from power in 1986 under Cory Aquino. A former senator, who was a sister of former president Fidel Ramos, filed a bill proposing to drop the Sabah claim to normalize relations with Malaysia and help end conflict in the south.
But Filipinos rejected the proposal and the bill was withdrawn. In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled the Sabah claim was still active and would be pursued in the future.
Locsin has the balls to claim Sabah as part of the Philippines. He could have realized the time has come to pursue the claim to give justice and correct the historical mistake committed to the Sultanate of Sulu.
Malaysia has used the rebellion in Mindanao to distract the Philippines from its Sabah claim. Although it also paid a price for the instability as 500,000 Filipino Muslim refugees fled to Sabah during the war, it was too little compared to the impact on the Philippine economy.
The war in Mindanao had drained the government’s coffers and Marcos’ military ran out of arms to sustain the conflict. Luckily, Singapore provided Marcos support because the tiny city-state had an issue with Malaysia.
Until now, Malaysia has a direct interest in the security, peace and stability of the southern Philippines as it played a key role in the peace agreement between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). It also hosts thousands of overseas skilled and unskilled workers and hundreds of thousands of undocumented migrants in many areas in Malaysia.
Over the years, despite improved bilateral relations, mistrust remains between the two countries, not only because of the Sabah claim and South China Sea dispute, but over a lot of issues.
It was felt during the peace negotiations between Manila and the Muslim rebel group as well as in counter-terrorism cooperation as threats from Jemaah Islamiyah emerged in the early 2000s.
For instance, Filipino intelligence officers found it easier to cooperate with the Indonesians than the Malaysians who would deny free access to militants under their custody.
Unless the two sides sort their differences over Sabah and the South China Sea, distrust and uneasiness could continue to prevail.
Malaysia has ignored the Philippine challenge to bring the Sabah issue before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) but that’s the only way to resolve, once and for all, which country has sovereignty over Sabah.
Indonesia and Malaysia had agreed to settle their dispute over a group of islands in eastern state before the International Court of Justice. Why can’t Malaysia agree with the Philippines on the Sabah claim?
Settling the issue before an international court will give justice to the people of Sulu, who rightfully owns the territory based on historical records.
But, first, Malaysia should pay the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu the 5,300 ringgit a year it owed to them since 2013 when Kuala Lumpur stopped paying the rent.