SABAH: White vs. Black

by: Gwynneth Muriel G. Guarin
Let’s try to see things in a different way. I see this dispute somewhat related to a chess game. The Philippines holds the white pieces and Malaysia holds the black pieces. The king of the white is represented by Sabah, the land that our ancestors of Sulu owned and the land interest of Malaysia. White moves first which gives it a better advantage on making a good plan. We had the Sabah since the 17th century. It was ceded by the Sultan of Brunei to the Sultan of Sulu as a payment for helping them in settling a civil war in their country. The Sultan Sulu had the sovereign power over Sabah for it was then under their territory. Malaysia made a move but then it was futile, we still have the upper hand.

Distractions and disturbances came in causing the player of the white to lose its focus. The Sultanate of Sulu and the British commercial syndicate (Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck) signed an agreement that leases Sabah to the British syndicate in return for a payment of 5000 Malayan Dollars per year. The United Kingdom established its protectorate over Sabah on 1888 and on 1915 the Sultanate of Sulu dissolved and was separated into sectors. The player made a very bad move exposing our king to the enemies. He can’t change it anymore because of the “Touch-move” policy. But in this game the player must know how to formulate a new tactic. The Philippines presents itself as the successor state of the Sultanate of Sulu, and has preserved a dormant claim over Sabah on the claim that the land was only leased to the British.The Philippine government had formally filed a claim to Sabah during the administration of President DiosdadoMacapagal on the basis of a historical and legal fact. His successor, President Ferdinand Marcos initially took a conciliatory posture towards Malaysia.

Malaysia believes that they own Sabah and they based it on its inclusion in the formation of the Federation of Malaysia. They’ve mentioned that whatever interest the British Government had in Sabah and whatever interests the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) had in Sabah, which were derived from whatever interests Overbeck and Dent derived from their 1878 agreement with Sultan of Sulu. This claim is said to be invalid. According to William Gladstone, a British Prime Minister, the Protectorate agreement can’t possibly deprive the Sultanate of Sulu of the sovereignty. Overbeck and Dent as private individuals have no legal status in international law to assume the power of sovereignty involved in the cession of territory.

The game, until today, is still going. Both parties had never given up on their claims. But our government made a mistake. They didn’t give much importance on this issue because they are busy claiming Spratly and Scarborough Shoal when in fact the only proof that we own West Philippine Sea is the UNCLOS unlike the Sabah that we already hold the legal and historical facts saying that we own it. And now Malaysia is enjoying the abundant resources of Sabah. This dispute could have been died years ago if it is given the attention it needed. We own Sabah but we are not enjoying its treasures, sad thing but true.

The game is not finished yet. Let’s not wait for the point where we won’t be able to do anything. If Malaysia can claim Sabah with weak basis why can’t we?