10 things we have to know about Sabah claims

10 things we have to know about Sabah claims

President-elect Rodrigo Duterte has said he will continue to pursue the Philippines' claim to Sabah. In line with this, we compiled ten points that provide a quick summary of Sabah's historical narrative.

10 things we have to know about Sabah claims

(Photo from philstar.com)

The land has been passed from one hand to another, and the constant back-and-forth of its sovereignty in the past is still an issue today.

1. Sabah was a gift from another sultan

Way back in 1704 (or 1658, depending on other articles), The Sultan of Brunei ceded the area to the Sultan of Sulu, to thank him for his assistance in suppressing a rebellion.

2. It was rented out to an Austrian in 1878

According to Senator Jovito Salonga in his 1963 speech, an Austrian adventurer named Baron de Overbeck knew that the Sultan of Sulu was facing a high-risk struggle with the Spanish forces in the Sulu Archipelago. He proceeded to travel to Sulu, take advantage of the situation, and persuade the Sultan of Sulu to lease the land to him for a yearly rental of Malayan $5,000.

3. It was given to a British man

Overbeck later sold his rights under the contract to Alfred Dent, an English merchant. Dent later established a provisional association, which grew into the British North Borneo Company. This company assumed all the rights and obligations, and became Sabah's administrator.

4. Things messed up in 1881

In this year, the Company was awarded a Royal Charter - however, a protest against the grant of the charter was launched by the Spanish and Dutch governments. The British government later clarified that 'sovereignty remains with the Sultan of Sulu' and that the Company merely acted as an administering authority.

5. It was "lost"in 1946

According to Salonga, the British North Borneo Company transferred all its rights and obligations to the British Crown. On July 10, 1946, - a mere six days after Philippine independence - the Crown asserted it had full overeign rights over North Borneo, starting from that date.

6. There were attempts to retrieve it in 1950 and 1962

Salonga explained that first, in 1950, Congressmen Diosdado Macapagal, Arsenio Lacson and Arturo Tolentino forwarded a resolution that urged the formal institution of the claim to North Borneo. Sadly, it was unsuccesful.

In 1962, after conducting prolonged studies in the issue, the House of Representatives unanimously passed a resolution urging the Philippine President to take back North Borneo, consistent with international law and procedure.  With this unanimous resolution, and having acquired all the rights and interests of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Republic of the Philippines filed the claim to North Borneo.

7. The Manila Accord was signed in 1963

The Manila Accord is an agreement that the Philippines, Indonesia and Malaysia entered into on July 1, 1963. It is described as a testimony to the three government's deep and mutual desire to have an exchange of views on current problems concerning stability, security, economic development and social progress. One of the stipulations under the agreement was about the ministers from the three countries reaffirming their countries' adherence to "the principle of self-determination for the peoples of non-self-governing territories. In this context, Indonesia and the Philippines stated that they would welcome the formation of Malaysia provided the support of the people of the Borneo territories is ascertained by an independent and impartial authority, the Secretary-General of the United Nations or his representative."

Fast forward to a few years later: this argument was used by Malaysia, when it announced that the so-called lease that Britain had received from the Sultan of Sulu was "nullified" when the Brits left and the residents of North Borneo "overwhelmingly voted" to join the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

8. Five years later, people got massacred because they refused to kill to take back Sabah

On March 1968, Muslim recruits were taken to Corregidor Island in preparation for "Operation Merdeka". It was a top secret plan of President Ferdinand Marcos' administration that aimed to take control of the Malaysian state of Sabah. The recruits, after the nature of their mission had been revealed to them, could not stomach the idea of killing their fellow Muslims. They paid for their hesitation with their lives - when they attempted to present their complaints against the Officers to Malancanang, the military officers in charge of their training opened fire on them.

It was later named the Jabidah Massacre, and the death toll reached at least 28 people.

9. The Sultan of Sulu sent a letter to Malacanang, which got lost in the change of admin

The Philippine Daily Inquirer once reported that there was a letter sent to President Noynoy Aquino in 2010 by Agbimuddin Kiram, crown prince of the sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo. The letter intended to express his clan's stand on the Philippine claim to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah and the peace process in Muslim Mindanao.

The letter reportedly "got lost in Malacanang" because it was sent on June 28, 2010 - two days before Aquino took oath as president. It apparently went through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process (OPAPP) but since Secretary Teresita Deles had not yet taken office at the time, another officer received the letter - and it was this officer who decided that the letter was not urgent.

After the start of the Sabah standoff, a source in Malacanang revealed that the president inquired about it, and was disappointed to learn that no one kept the letter or a copy of it.

10. The royal rebuff was the last straw

Raissa Robles, in her article for the South China Morning Post, wrote that when the Moro Islamic Liberation Front rebels signed the framework peace agreement at the Philippine presidential palace last October 2012, one man stood out in the jubilant, celebratory crowd. He was 75-year-old Jamalul Kiram III, who was invited as representative of the Sultanate of Sulu in the southern Philippines. He is the descendant of a once-wealthy ruling clan that can trace its lineage back to the 15th century, and what is now Malaysia's Sabah state.

Kiram was offended that neither Philippine President Benigno Aquino nor Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, had taken note of his presence. This royal snub, accompanied by pressing reports of Kiam's supporters being flogged and deported from Sabah once more, was what pushed dozens of his followers to set sail from their remote Philippine islands last February 2013 to push his claim.


This is just a quick primer of the Sabah claims - as is with all territorial disputes, the issue runs much deeper. It's enough to provide a rough framework for deeper research, if you decide to do so.

Do you think President-elect Duterte can help the Philippines win back Sabah? Let us know by reacting and leaving a comment below!

RELATED: How Marcos' treasury came about - and where it is now


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