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A historic dispute between two ASEAN member states, the Philippines and Malaysia, over the Malaysian State of Sabah on Borneo Island has resurfaced amidst the pandemic, potentially challenging ASEAN unity. The controversy arose when the Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin wrote on his Twitter account on July 27 : “Sabah is not in Malaysia, if you want to have anything do with the Philippines” in reaction to an innocuous post by the US Embassy in Manila. The Malaysian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Hishammuddin Hussein reacted saying his comment was “irresponsible” and “Sabah belongs to Malaysia and will remain a part of Malaysia forever”; the Philippine Ambassador was summoned for an explanation.

According to the Philippine claim, as a successor to the ownership rights of the Sultanate of Sulu, Sabah historically constituted a part of the Sultanate of Sulu. Secretary Locsin maintained that Philippines, is asserting its rights over Sabah as it is defending and asserting the rights of the Filipinos in the West Philippine Sea. Philippine Presidential spokesman Harry Roque however clarified that the dormant, but unresolved territorial dispute would not be allowed to come in the way of friendly bilateral relations.

It was assumed that territorial disputes among Southeast Asian neighbours were becoming a thing of the past. In the early stages, in the 1960s regional disputes had made regional cooperation difficult. The Malay-Philippine dispute over Sabah was one such. When Malaysia was formed in September 1963, with the merger of Singapore1 with Sarawak and Sabah (North Borneo) together with the Federation of Malaysia, both Indonesia and the Philippines opposed it. Philippine-Malaysia bilateral relations deteriorated at the time that Diosdado Macapagal was the President of the Philippines (1961-1965). He demanded that the people of North Borneo be given an opportunity to determine whether they chose to be independent, be part of the Philippines, or be part of another State. Later, under Ferdinand Marcos’ presidency, Operation Merdeka, undertaken by a commando unit codenamed ‘Jabidah’ planned to destabilise Sabah through infiltration by trained commandos to take over Sabah. But the operation failed following the Jabidah Massacre.

Background

In the past, the claim to Sabah (North Borneo) was spearheaded by two Philippine Presidents, President Diosdado Macapagal and President Ferdinand Marcos. It is the only major land dispute that Philippines has had with another Southeast Asian country.2 Malaysia has in the past rejected the claims to Sabah by the Philippines and the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu. Sabah had been ‘leased’ or ‘ceded’ in 1878 by the Sulu Sultan to Baron de Overbeck, the Austrian Consul at Hongkong. Subsequently it was sold to British North Borneo Company, taken over by the British Government in 1946, and finally bequethed to the Federation of Malaysia by Britain. Three different translations of the 1878 Treaty (Spanish, Moro and English) led to differing interpretations by the interested parties. From Philippines perspective, the Moro and Spanish translations referred to ‘lease’, while from the British perspective it referred to ‘grant’ and ‘cede’ in the English translation and hence their transfer of Sabah to the Federation of Malaysia was legitimate.

Eight of the heirs of the Sulu Sultan started ad hoc arbitration proceedings in Spain against the Malaysian government. A judgment in another case in the Malaysian High Court (Government of Malaysia vs Nurhima Kram Fornan and Others, 2020) was decided in favour of Malaysian Government on March 17, 2020. Judge Martin Idang ruled: “So, let me once again clearly state that we do not recognise or acknowledge any claim by the Philippines on Sabah. Sabah is part of Malaysia and has chosen to be and would continue to be a part of the sovereign nation since the state became party to its formation.”3 Tan Sri Musa Aman, former CM of Sabah for 15 years (2003-18) and seeking re-election again, “I urge the Philippines, including its Foreign Minister, to stop this type of narrative for its internal political purposes because it’s not good for bilateral relations within Asean member countries”.4

Why now?

The Philippine interest in Sabah has probably re-ignited for the following reasons:

1) The separatist movement in southern Philippines (Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago) received support and encouragement from elements operating from Malaysian soil.

2) Natural resources including timber, palm oil and hydro-carbon reserves.

3) in an era of rising nationalism and economic despair, unite Filipinos by whipping up national fervour

The Way Ahead:

The amicable resolution of the Sabah dispute is important for the region given the very long coastline of Sabah, the large number of Filipinos (both legitimate and illegitimate migrants) in Sabah, the disturbed state of southern Philippines, the simmering maritime disputes in the South China Sea, and fnally with the credibility of ASEAN at stake.

1 Singapore moved out of the Malaysian Federation to become a separate state in August 1965.

2 D.R. Sardesai, Southeast Asia Past and Present, Vikas, New Delhi, 1981

3 Former Chief Minister Tan Sri Musa Aman has urged Philippines to cease its claim over Sabah, saying it would harm existing ties with Malaysia., New Straits Times, .https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2020/08/613185/philippines-urged-cease-its-claim-over-sabah

4 Ibid.

DR. UDAI BHANU SINGH IS SENIOR RESEARCH ASSOCIATE AND HEAD OF THE SOUTHEAST ASIA AND OCEANIA CENTRE AT THE MANOHAR PARRIKAR INSTITUTE FOR DEFENCE STUDIES, (MP-IDSA), NEW DELHI.

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