THE Sulu partisans’ latest action on Sabah has encouraged a consensus that the dispute today is a colonial legacy that has survived for more than a century.
Colonial interests and actions in Borneo evidently contributed to the current imbroglio. However, the dispute actually began in the pre-colonial period between Sulu and Brunei four centuries ago.
Subsequent colonial interventions merely coloured the current mess. If not for European and American colonial ventures, the dispute could still rage between Sulu partisans and Brunei today.
The defunct Sulu Sultanate had never claimed that North Borneo – the north-eastern half of today’s Sabah – was its indigenous territory. All parties agree that it was originally part of the Brunei Sultanate.
The 17th-century Brunei civil war saw near-parity between two contenders for the throne. The side that eventually won had doubted its own capacity and enlisted Sulu mercenaries as reinforcement, and North Borneo was to be the payment for services rendered.
Sulu itself doubted its own capacity against the formidable forces of the challenger. Sulu forces arrived only after the final battle was won, so no “gift” of territory transpired.
This did not stop early Sulu partisans and their descendants from claiming North Borneo, and then Sabah. The claim persists despite the absence of title deeds, proof of administering territory, or the acknowledgement of Brunei.
Britain, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands and the US had interests in a region that covered Borneo and the Philippine archipelago including the Sulu islands. The interests of commerce and state sovereignty overlapped as was the norm at the time.
Territories gained through cession agreements or conquest needed to be governed, and governance required sovereign powers for administration and rule of law. As it was with the East India Company, the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) acquired charter status before seeing North Borneo become a British protectorate and then a colony.
So when the BNBC acquired North Borneo from Brunei through a permanent cession in December 1877, the company was also bestowed formal sovereign powers. Since Sulu had laid claim on the same territory, the BNBC also secured a permanent cession from Sulu on similar terms.
Unlike with Brunei, however, annual cession payments were to be made to Sulu instead of a lumpsum. Since the Sulu claim to the territory was secondary, the agreement came after the original one with Brunei.
Sulu forces were employed in extortion raids on Bornean communities in peacetime and as mercenaries in regional conflicts. The BNBC had hoped that continual cession payments would pacify them and stave off these attacks.
Even by 1878 Sulu had surrendered to Spain and had no locus standi in claiming sovereignty over any territory, including its own. In the course of Spain-Sulu relations seven treaties were signed, four of which stated clearly that Sulu had no authority to sign any agreement on territory with any foreign entity.
Nonetheless the Sulu Sultanate would violate these agreements as soon as the Spanish authorities left the Sulu islands for the Philippines proper. As a result the BNBC thought it prudent to sign a treaty with Sulu for North Borneo as well, with annual payments to ensure compliance.
Britain and Spain as the leading colonial powers in the region reached an agreement by which Spain would recognise British authority over Borneo in exchange for British recognition of Spanish rule in the Philippines including Sulu. Still, Sulu hankered after North Borneo territory.
The fabled Sulu claim to Sabah today is inadmissible in law on multiple counts, not least under modern international law. However, indirect Sulu influence prevails in exercising its narrative of events on the understanding of most observers.
First, in most international discourses on the dispute, only the 1878 agreement between Sulu and the BNBC is mentioned. The original and decisive agreement for North Borneo between Brunei and the BNBC is not mentioned at all.
Sulu has never possessed any title or other documented evidence of having acquired North Borneo from Brunei. Neither is there any record of Sulu governance of North Borneo, simply because Sulu never exercised sovereignty over it.
Second, the identities of the current band of self-proclaimed descendants of the last Sulu sultan claiming compensation from Malaysia remain doubtful. Only their lawyers and a Philippine news source appear to have verified their identities, not any independent authority.
To be entitled to any award in the first place, not only do all their identities have to be verified, they must represent all the rightful descendants that exist without any dissension among supposed descendants. As it stands, Datu Khudar dissents by rejecting any claim to Sabah.
Third, most parties presume without question the subsidiary claim that the 1963 agreement by which Malaysia assented to the Sulu partisans’ request for continued annual payments is identical to the 1878 agreement.
It is moot whether Malaysia had to agree to the descendants’ request in 1963, just as in 2013 there were no longer grounds for continued payments when the Royal Sulu Army of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III attacked Sabah. The Sulu partisans proved that Malaysia’s annual payments did not pacify them.
The Sulu partisans are notorious for disputing each other’s claim to the status of legitimate “heirs”. Even the claimants demanding billions from Malaysia cannot agree among themselves on who has legitimate “lineage” to be sultan.
What, if anything, remains of the Sulu sultanate today cannot possibly exist with such internal mutual disputes over rightful status.
Bunn Nagara convenes the independent Sabah Malaysia Study Group.