By Atty. Rene Espina
According to our Supreme Court, in a case that was brought before it when our present Constitution came into effect: “The Philippines has acquired jurisdiction and sovereignty over Sabah.” I still recall that the “ponente” was incumbent Supreme Court Justice Carpio – God bless him and the court. For various reasons, several PH governments had placed this issue behind the back burner.
Some years back, when the heirs to the sultan of Sulu elected a new sultan when the old sultan died, the new sultan was the type that believed in asserting his rights over Sabah. For those Filipinos who do not know anything about Sabah, let me briefly give them a background on this territory.
First centuries ago when there was a rebellion by the people in Brunei, Borneo, against the Sultan of Brunei, the Sultan of Sulu sent his Tausug warriors to help his relative, the Sultan of Brunei, to reestablish peace and order and to retain his sultanate. In gratitude for this support, the Sultan of Brunei gave away the territory that is now Sabah to the Sultan of Sulu. Sabah became a part of the Sultanate of Sulu and Sabah.
Much later, two adventurous characters named Overbeck and Brent inveigled the Sultan of Sulu and Sabah to lease in perpetuity the territory of Sabah for 2,000 Malaysian dollars. Until today, the Malaysian government pays this lease to the heirs of the Sultan.
To make short the long history of Sabah Overbeck and Brent transferred their rights to the British East India Company. Shortly, after we became independent from the USA on July 4, 1946, the British Crown issued a decree, making Sabah a British territory.
During President Macapagal’s term of office he asserted our rights over Sabah and negotiated with Great Britain. Later, the British formed the Federation of Malaysia composed of their territories of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak, and our territory of Sabah. The Sultan of Brunei refused to join and Singapore was kicked out by the Malays.
The British went through the nuances of a plebiscite allegedly to determine the will of the Sabahans. Neither the Tausugs nor the Philippines were allowed to participate in that consultation. It was the most atrocious and shameful act of the British empire – second only to their forcing the Chinese to accept the entry of opium into China.
Before the creation of Malaysia, the US government recognized Sabah as a territory under the Sultan of Sulu. During the term of office of President Ferdinand E. Marcos, the Sultan of Sulu transferred all his rights, sovereignty, and territory over Sabah to the Republic of the Philippines.
During President Benigno Aquino III’s term of office, the warriors of the Sultan of Sulu and Sabah tried to assert the sultanate’s rights over Sabah by landing a small group of armed men. The Malaysians as expected, fought the group of warriors with all the modern weaponry from jet fighter- bombers to tanks and naval units. President Aquino’s government did not react to the incident; there was not even a sympathetic statement regarding our Sabah territory.
In this week’s media, I have read that about nine captured Tausug soldiers of the Sultanate of Sulu have been tried by a Malaysian court and sentenced to death. I don’t believe, that the charges are fair and have legal international basis. In the first place, Sabah is Philippine territory. In the worst-case scenario the soldiers should be treated like combatants of the sultanate; they are not terrorists, they should be treated like soldiers captured in a war. In Timor Leste the rebel soldiers were treated like captured soldiers and were not sentenced to death by the Indonesian government. In fact, Indonesians allowed the Timor people to exercise their right of self determination and were allowed to vote freely. That’s why today we have a UN member country called Timor Leste.
The Philippine government must exercise its duty to protect and defend all its citizens including the Tausug soldiers of the Sultanate of Sulu who are our brother Filipinos. How they will do it, I leave it to their best judgement.
Finally as to our Sabah territory, sooner than later, we should try our very best to recover its possession. It is not going to be an easy task because the Malaysians are earning reportedly about $100 billion a year from the Sabah oil and gas deposits.