WHAT’S OUR CHANCES ON SABAH?

Department of Foreign Affairs undersecretary Jose Brillantes Jr. has recently downplayed some fears that continued inaction of the Philippine Government in connection with the latest crackdown of the Malaysian government on illegal Filipino workers in Sabah may signal our country’s disinterest in pursuing the Sabah claim. Days ago, Senator Miriam Santiago had sounded off that allowing the arrest and deportation of hundreds of Filipinos in Sabah may give the wrong signal to the international community and may be seen as a retreat of the Philippines’ claim over the oil-rich island just across the bottommost portion of the country. (It is said that at the southernmost Philippine island in Taw-Tawi, one could already see the mountains of Sabah by just staring towards the sea.)

See Phlippine Daily Inquirer Story Here

This fear might as well be well-founded and credible. If President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo fails to issue an official protest against Kuala Lumpur soon enough, it may signal a silent acquiescence of the Philippine Government and finally acknowledging and affirming the premise that Sabah is not after all under the scope of Philippine sovereignty and Filipinos living there are illegal aliens instead of occupants of a Philippine locality.

There have been so many talks on Sabah before but what are really our chances of finally taking Sabah as part of our territory?

Consider these facts then. The Philippine claim on Sabah is mostly anchored on a piece of document that had expressly proclaimed the lease of the entire Sabah island executed by the Sultanate of Sulu in 1878 in favor of The British North Borneo Company as represented by Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian businessman. The lease was consummated in consideration of the then sizable sum of 5,000 Malaysian Rinngit. To this day, the Malaysian company continues to the pay the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu the amount of 5,300 Ringgit, a measly 300 Rinngit increment from the original leasehold fee. In those years, the Sultan of Sulu held sovereignty over the entire North Borneo Island that it had gained as a gift from the Brunei king in consideration for his military assistance to the latter.

The claim of the Philippines over Sabah was once informally described as the principle of “you could not give what you do not have”. To say more specifically, the Philippines proposes that Sabah was actually under the effective control of then Sultanate of Sulu otherwise the latter could not have lease something that it does not own?

On the other hand, the Malaysian countered the above Philippine claim in an answer filed before the International Court of Justice in 2001, by stating as a matter of fact that the Philippines indeed “did not give what it did have”.

According to the Malaysian Government, the Sultanate of Sulu had already ceased to be an international entity when the Spanish Government finally conquered the islands in 1878, and when in 1885 Great Britain had recognized Spanish sovereignty over the island of Sulu. To add to this, the United States had finally abolished the sultanate in 1938 following the death of the last sultan in 1936. Meaning to say, Sabah had already ceased to be a territory of the Sultanate of Sulu when the latter ceased to have an international existence after 1938, and therefore its inhabitants immediately had the right of self-determination afterwards.

So, the Malaysian defense finally asked the question: If the Sultanate of Sulu has already become non-existent, can private persons like the heirs of the sultan claim sovereignty over a territory?

What the Philippine Government could point out perhaps, is that it is not already the Sultanate of Sulu that pursues the claim this time but the Philippine Government itself, to which the heirs of the last Sultan, (the owners of Sabah,) had became citizens of as a consequence of the abolition of the Sultanate of Sulu.

The final question should be: Can private persons like the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu has the capacity to own whole landholdings as huge as the island of Sabah? The answer would be: why not? There are no general provisions in international law that restricts ownership of whole islands, even by alien individuals, except when unique constitutions of each country prohibit such. The Philippine Government itself owns properties in Japan although in our jurisdiction, foreigners could not own lands. Yet there remains the question of sovereignty where like the Philippine example, we have ownership over certain properties in Roponggi but not sovereignty over it.

There is therefore a patent weakness to our claim over Sabah and it lies mainly in the inherent isolation of the Sabah inhabitants to the Philippine populace as whole. We lacked kinship or affinity to the people there in order to fulfill all the precedents of statehood. In international law, a state must have inhabitants that are fairly whole and related among each other in such facets as language and culture, aside from the elements of a controlled territory and a working civil government. If Sabah becomes under Philippine sovereignty, there might arise the ascend of certain specie of Filipinos who act, speak and move like non-Filipinos at all, and whose aim and aspiration is contrary to ours. We might not be capable in any way to maintain a fair civil government in that area if the time should come.

In 1968, the inhabitants of Sabah had opted in a plebiscite held there to join the then newly-formed Federation of Malaysia instead of becoming a separate state. By democratic precepts, the voice of majority becomes the voice of God---Vox Populi, Vox Lei.

Therefore, the Philippine claim is hindered greatly by the apparent will of the Sabah population not to be part of our nationhood and even if eventually we can be able to present a precise and proper documentations to prove our ownership over the oil-rich island, and have sovereignty over Sabah finally, we might just be facing an even graver problem of subjugating an entire hostile population. The Philippine Government could not even handle the secessionists’ movement in the south that well.

My only desire is that a new and thorough hearing must be made by the International Court of Justice concerning the Philippines’ claim over Sabah and after fair weighing of all facts and circumstances, we might just as well stand and live by it.

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