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COMMENTARY: History catches up with Sabah

FOR SEVERAL DAYS NOW, Manila’s broadsheets have been bannering the confrontation between followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and Malaysian authorities in a small town in Sabah.

Reports have it that some 300 armed followers of the Sultan of Sulu had traveled from Sulu in the southern Philippines to the town of Lahad Datu in Sabah to “reclaim their homeland.” The followers of the Sultan have refused to leave, claiming they have a right to be in a place that was historically theirs to begin with.

“Why should we leave our own home? In fact they (the Malaysians) are paying rent [to us],” the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Kiram as saying. The Inquirer story may be read here

For decades, the dispute over Sabah has alternately simmered or blown up, depending on the mood of whoever is in charge in Kuala Lumpur or Manila. Former President Marcos tried to raise an army of infiltrators to destabilize Sabah, but that caper ended in bloodshed with the Jabidah Massacre, resulting in even more bloodshed with the ensuing Moro rebellion. Presidents after Marcos either ignored the issue or delegated it to that process of systematically gathering dust called diplomacy. More recently, President Benigno S. Aquino III said the country’s claim over Sabah was just “dormant.”

While a lot of Filipinos know that North Borneo (now known as Sabah) has always been a point of dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia, few really know the roots of the dispute. Even fewer still know that the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, has been receiving a yearly amount from the government of Malaysia in exchange for Sabah, or at least the use of it, depending on how one interprets the contract signed more than a hundred and thirty years ago.

Long before there was a Manila, or even a Philippines, the Sultanate of Sulu was one of the most powerful and influential governments in the region, with diplomatic and trade ties going as far as China. In the 1700s, the Sultan of Brunei was faced with a rebellion in Borneo, and sought the assistance of the Sultan of Sulu. In response, the Sultan of Sulu sent Tausug warriors to quell the rebellion. As a token of his appreciation for the assistance rendered, the Sultan of Brunei gave what is now known as Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu.

Fast forward to 1878 – the Sultan of Sulu signs an agreement with a private firm called the British North Borneo Company under Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck to allow the company the use of Sabah. This is where the difficulty arises. The British version of the contract says that the Sultan agrees to “grant and cede” North Borneo for the sum of $5,000 a year. The Tausug version of the contract says that the land was only being leased to the British North Borneo Company. Key to the dispute is the translation of the Malay word Padjak in the contract, which has been translated variously as lease, pawn, or even mortgage, depending on who does the translating and when the translation was done. Language, after all, also evolves over the years. If you take a stroll down Jolo these days, you will see a lot of pawnshops with the sign “Padjak.”

Since 1878, the Sultan of Sulu and his heirs have been receiving this yearly payment (with an occasional break because of wars, changes in government,  and other similar inconveniences), first, from the British North Borneo Company, and then after 1963, from the Malaysian Federation, which assumed jurisdiction over the contract from the by then defunct British North Borneo Company. These days, the annual payments given by the Malaysian Embassy in Manila to the Sultan of Sulu reportedly amount to P74-77,000, or roughly more than $1,800. Malaysia prefers to call the annual payments “cession payments,” in which case the payments would appear to be a perpetual fee for the ceding of Sabah to Malaysia. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, for his part, has called the payments “rental,” meaning ownership of Sabah still rests with the Sultanate of Sulu, now of course a part of the Philippines.

But while ancient history may appear to be on Manila’s side, contemporary history is not.

When one visits Sabah, one easily comes across thousands of Filipino migrants, mostly Tausugs from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. Sabah, after all, is just a skip and a hop away from Tawi-Tawi, and many Tausugs find more in common with the people of Sabah than the people in Manila. Long before modern governments started drawing lines on maps and calling them borders, Tausugs were travelling to and from North Borneo and laying their roots there. To them, Sabah was just “that next island over there.” In the port of Sandakan, Tausugs practically have the run of the town, and you can approach most anyone and try to converse with them in Filipino. While Malaysia tries hard to control the inflow of Tausugs through the immigration center in Sandakan, most Tausugs just take a fast motorboat or kumpit from the most southern parts of Tawi-Tawi. After all, you could already see the lights of Sabah from some islands in Tawi-Tawi.

In fact, when we visited Sandakan by ferry several years ago, we saw boats towing large rafts of timber from Tawi-Tawi to Sabah. Obviously, this trading activity was not going through customs.

As well, there are many Kampongs in Sabah that are populated by Tausugs, many of whom are either war or economic refugees. Kampong is the Malay word for community, much like the Philippine barangay.

Take note that we have been using the word Tausug to describe the migrants from Jolo and Tawi-Tawi; Tausug for many of them is not just the name of the tribe, but their political and cultural identity as well. Their association with this identity is much stronger than their association with the country they came from. Interestingly and alarmingly, we came across many who indignantly refused to be called Filipinos, and preferred to just be called “Tausug.” For them, the Philippines is a distant, even unfriendly memory.

But what was most striking was this: Many of the Tausugs we encountered detested the idea of the Philippine government reclaiming Sabah. Refugees from war and poverty, many of these Tausugs see little benefit in a Sabah under the Philippine flag; in fact, for them, it is a worrying proposition, not unlike jumping from the cliched frying pan into an even bigger fire.

One Tausug we encountered outside a mall in Kota Kinabalu bristled at the idea of the Philippines staking a claim on Sabah. “Sisirain lang nila ang Sabah. Okay na nga ang Sabah ngayon, guguluhin lang nila,” he said. [They will just destroy Sabah. Sabah is doing fine right now, they will just mess it up.]

It is hard to blame them for the cynicism. After all, they took great risks and fled their own troubled country in droves for a better life, only to have that same country reach out and stake a claim on what to them is already a virtual paradise where one can finally live and work in peace. That, to them, may be the ultimate irony, the ultimate tragedy. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNew. Ed Lingao is the Multimedia Director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. This piece is from the PCIJ blog on February 19, with permission to reprint granted to MindaNews)

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