A pundit who should know better asks in his column: If Malaysia owns Sabah, why does it pay rent to the Sulu sultanate? That’s because Malaysia recognizes the proprietary rights of the sultanate to Sabah. If a person has a private property in another country, that person has a right to some economic benefit from its use. But Malaysia reserves for itself the right of sovereignty — the right to govern Sabah.
To those who say that the sultanate of Sulu doesn’t exist, the government of Malaysia is too intelligent to pay rent to an imaginary sultanate. The Philippine foreign secretary isn’t so stupid as to apologize for a misplaced letter to a figment of the imagination. The sultanate is poor and might have made a tragic mistake in breaking Malaysian law by sending its people to settle in Sabah. But it exists.
On the recent bloody events in Sabah, it can be argued that Malaysia did what it had to. But President Aquino of the Philippines could’ve done better than to summon the sultan of Sulu and say, “If you are really their leader, then recall your people…” and then threaten him with “the full force of the laws of the land.”
The British Raj, and more recently the American military in Iraq and Afghanistan, made the same mistake by snubbing the traditional rulers.
In Muslim Mindanao, the adat (customary law) reigns supreme, with Shariah coming in second, and the laws of the republic a poor third. Manila-made laws don’t scare a Tausug sultan. A promise to include him in negotiations with Malaysia could have been persuasive.
As for the Philippine claim to Sabah, its strength lies in the sanctity of contracts and the principle that you can’t pass on what you don’t have. Neither the Austrian adventurer to whom Sabah was leased, nor the British merchant who bought the rights under that lease were sovereign entities. They couldn’t have passed on a sovereignty they never had.
That’s why when the British company was granted a Royal Charter in 1881 and the Spanish and the Dutch governments protested, the British government explained in no uncertain terms that the British company was only administering the territory and that “sovereignty remains with the sultan of Sulu.”
But the situation on the ground favors Malaysia. Possession is nine-tenths of the law. The stakes are uneven. If the Philippines lost its Sabah claim, Filipino pride would be wounded. But if Malaysia lost the territory, the ensuing political cataclysm would be intolerable. Besides, the Philippines couldn’t feasibly govern Sabah; it would enjoy some popular support but the opposition would be enormous and bloody.
Both governments came close to a solution in the mid-1990s when former President Ramos proposed, as part of the Brunei-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East Asean Growth Area (Bimp-Eaga), the formation of a public-private corporation that would economically uplift the heirs of the Sulu sultanate.
With a virtually boundless Bimp-Eaga gaining strength, and the public-private corporation flourishing, the Philippines would be able to set aside its Sabah claim forever, or simply drop it. The Malaysian side showed keen interest in the proposal.
Before the Philippine government could craft its details, Ramos’s term came to a close in 1998, and he was succeeded by a movie actor interested only in the bottle. For years, the sultanate was ignored or forgotten. Finally, in his frustration, Sultan Jamalul sent some 200 followers on a doomed mission to “reclaim” their “homeland.”
There’s no reason why both governments today can’t quickly launch negotiations based on the Ramos proposal — not to decide who has sovereignty over Sabah, but to simply bring closure to the issue in a manner that is honorable and satisfactory to all stakeholders, including the sultanate of Sulu and all the people of Sabah.