Philippines downplays sultan heirs’ Sabah claims as ‘private’

Aie Balagtas See
Philippines downplays sultan heirs’ Sabah claims as ‘private’ Philippine Muslim women carry torches as they join a rally in suburban Taguig, south of Manila, to call for a peaceful resolution after followers of the Sultan of Sulu entered Lahad Datu in Sabah, Malaysia, to assert their rights over the territory, March 6, 2013.
Aaron Favila/AP

The new Philippine government sought to distance itself Tuesday from a controversy between next-door neighbor Malaysia and heirs of a sultanate who are trying to seize international assets of Kuala Lumpur’s state-owned oil company, in a land dispute going back to the 1800s.

The claim by the descendants of the Sultan of Sulu “is in the nature of a private claim” between two private parties and does not involve the government, a spokeswoman for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said, referring to the heirs and Malaysia.

“Therefore, it is not an issue of sovereignty or of territory at the moment,” Trixie Cruz-Angeles told reporters at a news briefing.

She was responding to recent reports from Malaysia that quoted members of the sultanate as saying they hoped that President Marcos would help them recover Sabah, which is part of Malaysian Borneo and is close to the Sulu Archipelago in the far-southern Philippines.

They pointed to a declaration made by Marcos during his first State of the Nation Address last month that, as president, he would not “abandon even one square inch” of Philippine territory.

The heirs’ claims did not constitute sovereignty “at the moment,” according to Cruz-Angeles. In addition, Marcos’ statement before Congress needed clarification, though it was thought to refer to territorial wrangling over the South China Sea, the presidential spokeswoman indicated.

“The president’s articulation of his statement about not giving up a square inch of territory will have to be reduced into writing and into specifics, after which, we will announce these to you if they are in any way related to the Sabah claim,” Cruz-Angeles said.

“At the moment, there is still no articulation, so we have to wait.”

The heirs, reacting to Marcos’ speech, had expressed the hope that the new leader would work to reclaim Sabah, which has been the focus of a long-standing territorial dispute between the Philippines and Malaysia. While serving in the Senate, Marcos passed a resolution urging the country to actively revive its claim to Sabah.

The heirs are trying to seize Malaysian government assets around the world in a bid to enforce a U.S. $14.9 billion arbitration award against Malaysia despite a stay issued by a French court.

In February, a court in France had ordered Malaysia to pay the sum to the descendants of the last Sultan of Sulu to settle a dispute over a colonial-era land deal. On July 12, however, the Paris Court of Appeal stayed the ruling after finding that enforcement of the award could infringe on Malaysia’s sovereignty.

On July 19, Malaysian Prime Minister Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced that his government would protect the country’s assets abroad in the wake of the French ruling. He said a special task force was formed to investigate the seizure notice served on two European assets of the state-owned oil firm Petronas by heirs to the Sulu sultanate.

“They will look into not just Petronas’ assets but our other assets abroad. That was the job given to the special task force,” Ismail Sabri said in response to reporters’ questions on the sidelines of a National Security Conference where Malaysian sovereignty in the South China Sea was discussed.

“We will protect our assets abroad via legal means. I give you the assurance that we will not compromise and will defend our rights and the country’s sovereignty.”


Marcos supporter

Princess Jacel Kiram, who represents the sultanate’s heirs and supports Marcos, said lately that the ruling had somehow proved “to everyone, not just in the Philippines, not just in Malaysia, but to the whole world that Sabah is ours.”

“The story of the Sultanate of Sulu began even before the existence of Malaysia,” she told reporters in late July, noting that the sultanate could prove it had received payments from the Malaysian government that had stopped only in recent years.

Philippine dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos, the current president’s late father whose two-decade rule ended in 1986, was a staunch advocate of reclaiming Sabah, which he considered part and parcel of the Philippines. He even weighed the possibility of sending specially trained commandos there in the 1960s, historians have said. 

In 1963, the British government made Sabah, then a colony of Britain, part of the newly created Federation of Malaysia.

The Philippines claims that Sabah was only leased, not ceded, to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878, the administrator of the territory before Britain annexed it.

Malaysia, however, maintains that the international community has been recognizing Sabah as part of its territory since the formation of the federation in 1963.

The dispute over Sabah turned violent in 2013 after followers of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III entered Lahad Datu in Sabah to assert their rights over the territory.

A series of armed encounters ensued after Kiram’s followers refused to leave despite warnings by Malaysian government forces. Dozens of Malaysian security personnel and sultanate followers died during the clashes, which spilled over to other parts of Sabah.


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Jaime Protacio
Aug 05, 2022 05:53 AM

I thought Bongbong Marcos was a strong leader, but as surmise his behavior is "walang panindigan, in contrast to his Father Ferdinand Sr. who fought that , Sabah is a part of the Philippines "masyadong nasusulsulan" ng mga private interest instead, we fought so hard for the West Philippine Sea, why not for this claim! Clearly the French Arbitral Court sided with Heirs of the Sultan of Sulu. This is a good opportunity to declare the Philippines claim of sovereignty to Sabah. I think this President is making the wrong priorities, He said that he will never surrender an inch of Philippine territories. Bongbong hear me "SAYING IS ONE THING PUTTING WHAT YOU SAY INTO EXECUTION IS A TEST OF YOUR STRENGTH AND CHARACTER".

Amroussi Tillah Rasul, Claimant, Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo
Aug 24, 2022 03:35 AM

I appeal to the Malaysian Government and our Muslim brothers of Malaysia to settle the Sabah Claim of the Filipino heirs and claimants of North Borneo . I am optimistic that Malaysia, as an Islamic state, will show to the whole world that it practices true Islamic justice and compassion especially to its Muslim brothers and sisters of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Everybody knows, including the Malaysian government and its leaders, that North Borneo (Sabah) is owned by the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu. It is fully documented. The fact that the original 2 lessees Overbeck and Dent and then Malaysia continued paying rent for decades is clear and easy proof.

Malaysia must bite the bullet and settle immediately.

Hughie Tan
Sep 10, 2022 03:20 AM

Have the warring parties ever thought of mediating the dispute in a civilised way instead of resorting to violence? The problems are 'men made' and they could be resolved through the ingenuity of men if only there are truly strong determination. If the return of territory is not viable for practical reason, then other considerations such as monetary compensation might mitigate the situation instead of bloodshed.
May I urge those people with ideas to come forward and who are able to work with world class mediators to help resolve the problems instead of allowing the situation to escalate. The concern government in power should be able to initiate that.