The Royal Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo isn’t much to look at. It’s a two-story house in a ramshackle Manila neighborhood where beggars jostle for sidewalk space with elderly ladies selling baskets of dried fish and teenagers running photocopier stalls.
Jamalul Kiram III, the 74-year-old self-declared Sultan of Sulu, has made a centuries-old claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah.
But this is the operations hub for Jamalul Kiram III, the 74-year-old self-declared Sultan of Sulu whose audacious attempt to enforce his family’s centuries-old claim to the Malaysian state of Sabah has so far claimed over 70 lives, and put his tiny kingdom at the center of Asia’s confusing and deadly mosaic of overlapping territorial claims.
“Everybody knows I’m the rightful owner of Sabah. All we want is for Malaysia to recognize it, too,” Mr. Kiram said during a break in discussions with supporters here recently.
Wearing a bright sarong and a grubby “I Love Kuala Lumpur” T-shirt, he explained that he doesn’t really want to govern Sabah. Rather, he says he just wants the same status accorded to other sultans in Malaysia, such as the Sultan of Johor or Sultan of Perak – and some money to help him lead a royal lifestyle.
So, last month Mr. Kiram dispatched around 200 followers, many of whom were heavily armed, to make the short hop from his ancestral stamping grounds in the Sulu archipelago of the southern Philippines to Malaysia-controlled Borneo.
Celia Kiram, the self-declared sultan’s wife, signs for the receipt of a subpoena from the Philippines’ National Bureau of Investigation to help with their inquiries.
After a lengthy stand-off in a coastal village, Malaysian security forces launched air strikes and sent in ground troops to flush out the intruders. In the following days, 62 Filipinos, nine Malaysian security personnel and one civilian were killed in clashes while governments in Kuala Lumpur and Manila scrambled to contain the political fallout in both countries. Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, with an election due soon, said he had to act swiftly to protect Malaysia’s territorial integrity, and many of the Kiram family’s supporters are still on the run in Sabah as Filipino prosecutors wonder whether they can charge Mr. Kiram with violating any Philippine laws.
As bizarre as all this seems, Mr. Kiram’s quest isn’t as Quixotic as claiming to be the rightful monarch of, say, France.
Despite having no formal political power, the Sultanate of Sulu commands considerable respect among many Muslim Filipinos. In the past, it helped unify warring tribes in the fractious southern Philippines. The family also believes it has a legitimate claim to Sabah, after the Sultan of Sulu granted the territory to the Kirams in 1704 in return for helping to crush a rebellion, and the Philippine government has never fully relinquished its claim, either.
Looking on at the carnage from his crumbling Manila home, Mr. Kiram reckons his mission has partly succeeded. Among other things, the Sabah invasion has helped put his family’s claim back on the international map alongside other disputes, such as a border row between Thailand and Cambodia and China’s tussles with Vietnam and other countries over which nation controls parts of the South China Sea.
The Philippine government, meanwhile, says it is now examining how it can revive the Sabah claim peacefully. “I have a responsibility to dissect history in search of these truths, and from there, to lay down the direction that our country will take as regards Sabah – a direction that I guarantee you will not involve the use of violence,” President Benigno Aquino III said Monday.
And as far as Mr. Kiram is concerned, it’s not a moment too soon.
Family members say Mr. Kiram is running out of time. He undergoes kidney dialysis at least twice a week at a cost of $120 per session. The 5,300 ringgit, or about $1,700, that the Malaysian government pays his family each year in an archaic form of rent doesn’t come close to covering it, and his poor health is depleting his savings.
His siblings are also aging – an important consideration given that the line of royal succession in the Sulu sultanate passes from brother to brother like in Saudi Arabia, rather than father to son, as in Britain. The brother commanding the Sabah invasion and now on the run, for instance, is 70-year-old retired woodwork teacher Agbimuddin Kiram.
“A lot of us want to see something happen now before it is too late,” says Celia Kiram, the sultan’s wife. “We’ve made proposals to Malaysia and to Malacanang,” she said, referring to the Philippines’ presidential palace. “But nothing has happened.”
A succession of governments in the Philippines has struggled with the Kiram family’s claim to Sabah. In 1902, American writer George Ade wrote a comic opera called “The Sultan of Sulu” that poked fun at the U.S.’s efforts to govern its new colonial possession after winning the islands from Spain in 1898. The musical revolved around Sultan Jamalul Kiram I’s colorful appetites, including his clumsy attempts to woo the schoolmarms sent by U.S. President William McKinley to help educate the islanders about American ways.
In 1915, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II abdicated his formal powers, and in 1963 Sabah, which the Kiram family had leased to the British North Borneo Company, was formally folded into modern-day Malaysia – enraging the Kiram family for generations to come.
The modern-day Philippine government has occasionally raised the claim to Sabah, too. In 1968, former president Ferdinand Marcos hatched a plan to train Muslim soldiers to invade and annex Sabah, but it was aborted when the recruits rebelled. Dozens were massacred.
Last year, current President Benigno Aquino III appeared to put the dispute to bed by describing the country’s claim to Sabah as dormant. Malaysia, meanwhile, helped broker a breakthrough peace agreement between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, the largest of the Muslim rebel groups operating in the south of the predominantly Christian Philippines.
Those events raised fears among senior members of the Kiram family that Manila would relinquish the Philippines’ claim to Sabah, and also sideline the clan from a new power structure forming in the chaotic islands of the southern Philippines that would be dominated by the Islamic Front.
But by making an armed invasion of Sabah, some members of the Kiram clan fear Mr. Kiram has blown the family’s chances of getting a settlement, as well as complicating life for some 800,000 Filipinos who live and work in the state, who now fear being viewed by Malaysian security forces as potential collaborators with the intruders.
“This isn’t going to help. It will only harden attitudes,” says Muedzil Lail Tan Kiram, Mr. Kiram’s cousin, who also claims to be the legitimate Sultan of Sulu.