It looks like the Sultanate of Sulu will lose to Malaysia in their ownership fight over Sabah.
The cards are stacked up against the family of the ailing 74-year-old Sultan Jamalul Kiram III:
- Malaysia is in physical control of that disputed 73,630-square-kilometer corner of Borneo that it rents from the sultanate for P70,000 a year. Occupation means 99.99 percent of winning the case.
- Malaysia’s vastly superior forces — dominating the sea, land and air — are hunting down with deadly ferocity the ragtag “royal forces” of the sultanate that have been reduced to less than 200 guerillas on the run.
- In a 1963 referendum sponsored by the United Nations under the principle of self-determination, majority of Sabah residents reportedly elected to stay with Malaysia.
- Kiram family members themselves do not agree on what route to take.
- And President Aquino appears to have taken the side of Malaysia. That clinches it.
But the Kirams are not likely to go down alone. President Aquino, his senatorial Team PNoy and the entire country are bound to suffer collateral damage.
If the President is not able to work out before May a resolution mutually satisfactory to Kuala Lumpur and the sultanate, that could mean:
- Goodbye to a Bangsamoro sub-state for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front replacing the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao created for the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
- Also goodbye to that dream that the Bangsamoro deal would end the strife in Mindanao and inspire Mr. Aquino’s nomination for a Nobel Peace Prize.
From the time he started scolding the Kirams in public, telling them to surrender unconditionally and face the law, President Aquino hardly had any word of comfort or assurance for them.
On the contrary, the President and his spokesmen are sometimes caught mouthing the same lines as Malaysia Prime Minister Najib Razak and his foreign minister.
Last time he spoke on the subject, at the Philippine Military Academy, the President said, correctly, that the “complicated” dispute cannot be resolved by force of arms but by peaceful dialogue.
However, it is important that the Kirams and the government get together, move in a common direction and face Malaysia with one voice.
But how can this happen when the Kirams cannot agree among themselves, while the President and his boys sound almost like Kuala Lumpur’s spokesmen?
Sen. Miriam Santiago, incoming member of the International Criminal Court, suggested that the Philippines and Malaysia appoint a third party to conduct “inquiry and fact-finding” on the fighting in Sabah.
Under the 1907 Hague Convention for the Pacific Settlement of Disputes, she said, these peaceful options can be used to resolve disputes by clarifying the facts through an “impartial and conscientious investigation.”
According to her, “the method of inquiry and fact-finding does not involve the investigation or application of the rules of law.”
She added that “under international law, impartial fact-finding facilitates peaceful settlement of disputes, particularly settlement by negotiation, mediation, good offices, or conciliation.”
Santiago underscored the urgency of the government giving “diplomatic protection” to Filipinos in distress.
There is an unwritten exception to the prohibition on the use of force, she said, such as when a state acts to protect or rescue its nationals in the territory of another state.
But before the Philippines can undertake rescue operations in Sabah, she said the government must observe these conditions:
- The life of Filipinos should be genuinely in danger and Malaysia is unwilling or unable to ensure their safety.
- The Philippines does not pursue any other purpose during the rescue.
- The scale and effects of the military force used are adequately suited to the purpose and conditions of the operation.
It is obvious, however, that even with the above conditions, President Aquino’s ordering a rescue is out of the question, given his frame of mind.
SABAH IS A LEASE
The 1878 Deed over Sabah executed by the Sulu sultan in favor of two Europeans is described as a “deed of pajak,” meaning lease.
Santiago said that since it was a lease, the sultan never transferred sovereignty to the Europeans, who later formed the British North Borneo Co., which transferred sovereignty to the British crown and then to Malaysia.
“Since no transfer of sovereignty was involved in the 1878 Deed, no transfer of sovereignty has ever passed to Malaysia,” she said.
The senator quoted statements of the British foreign minister at the time, Lord Granville, that sovereignty remained in the Sulu sultan.