After 45 years, the contentious sovereignty and proprietary claim over Sabah is again splattered with
blood. This time the bloodshed is within Sabah unlike the March 18, 1968 Jabidah Massacre in the island
By official estimate around 28- 60 young Tausug and Sama men of the unit called Jabidah, recruited for
the secret mission called Operation Merdeka, were machine-gunned by their military handlers when
they attempted mutiny after finding out the real objective of the operation. The young men were from
Tawi-Tawi and Sulu provinces.
The young Muslims believed they were legitimate military recruits for a special unit of the Armed Forces
of the Philippines. They underwent training in the island of Simunul, Tawi-Tawi from August- December
1967. They were transferred later to Corregidor Island for “special training”.
Operation Merdeka, hatched by the former president and dictator Ferdinand Marcos, was an infiltration
mission to sow chaos in Sabah which at that time was barely 5 years since joining the Federation of
Malaysia. Malaysia was unstable at that time after Singapore seceded in 1965. The Philippines, which
was then stronger than Malaysia, would take advantage of the situation to force its claim over Sabah.
The scenario: the Philippines could then come in and take Sabah by force, to “protect” the
thousands of Tausugs who lived there or incite them to secede and join the Philippines.1
The young recruits could not bear the thought of killing their own Muslim brothers, kindred and friends
living in Sabah. They became restive. But Operation Merdeka must be kept secret; the young recruits
had to be silenced forever. But one was able to escape the carnage2 in the night of March 18. Jibin Arula
was able to reach the sea and found a wooden plank to cling on until he was found by fishermen from
nearby Cavite in the morning. He told the story to media people and to the late Sen. Benigno Aquino II.
Fast forward 45 years: A band of around 200 fighters of the “Royal Security Force (RSF)” of the
“Sultanate of Sulu and Sabah” under the command of “Raja Mudah” Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of self-
proclaimed Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, sailed from Simunul, Tawi-tawi and landed in Lahad Datu, Sabah
to “reclaim” their land from Malaysia. The tense stand-off between Malaysian security forces and the
“Royal Army” from February 10 erupted into gun battle on March 1, 2013.
authorities reported that 67 have been killed, including 9 Malaysian policemen and soldier and 58
Filipinos, while 97 suspected “Royal Security Force” fighters have been arrested.
Malaysian authorities found an excuse to further harass Filipino residents and migrants in Sabah.
Thousands of Filipinos have fled back to Tawi-Tawi and Sulu. They bring with them harrowing news
of violations of human rights of Filipino migrants and also of Sabahans, including alleged killings of
unarmed and hapless Filipino men by Malaysian policemen.
The P-Noy government has condemned the reported violations of human rights of Filipinos by Malaysian
authorities and demanded an explanation. Earlier UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has issued an
appeal for cessation of hostilities. Lately, Malaysia denied the alleged human rights violations.
Context of Conflicts over the Sabah Claim
Filipino and Malaysian bloods are now being shed in the conflict that is rooted on likewise conflicting
historical and legal claims of sovereignty, jurisdiction and ownership over a territory with an area of
73,711 square kilometers (7,371,100 hectares).
Sabah, part of the territory of Malaysia from 1963, is a land rich in oil. It has oil and gas reserves as big
as Kuwait’s. It produces 70% of the total Malaysian oil production and contributes US$100 billion to the
country’s GDP. It also has huge deposits of other minerals such as coal, gold, and copper.
The Sabah question and the issues of sovereign and proprietary rights of the “Sultanate of Sulu” over it
should be viewed in the context of the formation of Malaysia and the Philippines as nation-states. Both
countries were former colonies of Western powers.
The states that form Malaysia now were former colonial possessions of the British Empire from the late
18th century until 1957 and 1963. The former Federation of Malaya, consisting of the states in the Malay
Peninsula, was granted independence by Britain in 1957. The Federation of Malaysia or Malaysia was
formed upon the inclusion of newly “independent” former British Crown Colonies of Sabah, Sarawak
and Singapore on September 16, 1963. (Singapore seceded in 1965.)
For over 300 years (1565-1898) the Philippines was a colony of Spain and later of the imperialist United
States of America (1898-1946). The Philippines, including the Sulu archipelago, was turned over by Spain
to the US for a sum of $20M as provided by the 1898 Treaty of Paris.
Another treaty (Cession Treaty) was signed between Spain and the US in 1900. The purpose was for
Spain to relinquish in favor of the US, “any title or claim of title to any and all islands belonging to the
Philippine Archipelago, lying outside the lines described in Article III of that Treaty (1898 Treaty of Paris)
and particularly to the islands of Cagayan de Sulu (presently the island municipality of Mapun3, Tawi-
Tawi) and Sibutu and their dependencies. Spain was paid an additional $100,000 for the said cession.
Then in November 1930 the US and Great Britain signed the Boundaries Treaty delimiting or delineating
the boundaries between North Borneo, which was then a British Protectorate being administered by
the British North Borneo Company and the Philippines, then a US territory. The agreement defined theislands belonging to the US, which was the sovereign power over the Philippines and those belonging to
On the day the Senate Bill was passed, Admiral Michael Carver, Commander-in-Chief of the British forces
in the Far East said his troops, ships and planes “stand squarely behind Malaysia in the growing crises
with the Philippines over Northern Sabah.”
When RA 5546 was signed, US State Department Press Officer Robert J. McCloskey said, the U.S.
recognized the ownership of Malaysia over Sabah.8
Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia were restored in December 1969.
Historical and legal records about the Sulu Sultanate and the Sabah issue
Historically, it was the Sultanate of Sulu which had sovereign and ownership rights over Sabah. But the
circumstances of the times— colonialism by western powers over the greater part of Southeast Asia 9--
muddled and shrouded the Sulu Sultanate’s sovereign and proprietary rights over Sabah.
The Sultanate of Sulu was founded in 1457. At its peak, its territory included the Sulu archipelago
(covering the provinces of Sulu and Tawi-tawi), North Borneo or the present Sabah, Basilan, southern
Palawan and Sambangan, roughly equivalent to the present territory of Zamboanga City, the western
portions of the Zamboanga peninsula, and the Spratly islands.
In 1658, (1704 in other accounts) Brunei Sultan Abdul Hakkul Mubin awarded the northeast coast of
Borneo (Sabah), including Palawan, to Sulu Sultan Salah ud-Din Karamat Bakhtiar for helping settle a civil
war dispute against Pengiran Bongsu Muhyuddinin10.
Brunei Sultan Bongsu Muhyuddin, upon ascending to the throne in 1673, confirms the Sultan of Sulu as
sovereign landowner of the territories of North Borneo/Sabah and the island of Palawan. 11
These happened in the historical circumstance when the concepts of democracy, self-determination and
nation-state were still far from human thoughts and practice, especially in Asia. The Western Colonial
powers at that time—Spain and Portugal and the emerging Great Britain and Netherlands were in either
absolute or constitutional monarchies.
“In 1763 (1761) Sultan Azimuddin signed a treaty allowing the British East Indies Co. to use Sabah and
other territories. Tensions later developed between the sultan and the company, which prevented the
effective implementation of the treaty. More than a hundred years later on January 22, 1878, Baron
Gustavos von Overbeck of the British East India Trading Co. entered into a lease agreement or padjak
with Sultan Jamalul Alam. This company was later absorbed by the British North Borneo Co.” 12
The Sabah conflict on ownership arose from the interpretation of the word padjak or pajak in the
January 1878 contract signed between Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam, representing the Sultanate,
as “owner and sovereign” and Baron Gustavos von Overbeck and Alfred Dent, representing the British
In the same occasion the Sultan “appointed” Baron von Overbeck as Datu Bandahara (Bandjava) and
Rajah of Sandakan.
The interpretation of the word pajak or padjak is the bone of contention with regards the
proprietary ownership of North Borneo. The British version of the contract is translated as “ …
hereby grant and cede… all the territories and lands being tributary to us on the mainland of the
island of Borneo…”
On the other hand, the Sulu Sultanate’s version states: “…do hereby lease of our own freewill…
forever and until the end of time, all rights and powers which we possess over all territories and
lands tributary to us on the mainland of the Island of Borneo…”
The best evidence of that time attesting the deed was a contract of lease and not of grant and
cede, is the Spanish translation done on July 13, 1878 which states: Contrato de Arrendo (or
Arrendamiento) which translates as “contract of lease”.
In a letter of Sultan Jamalul Alam to the Spanish Governor Captain-General dated July 4, 1878,
he denied what appeared in Singapore newspapers that, “I have ceded Sandakan to Overbeck…
is not true”. In the same letter the Sultan stated: “As for his title of Datto Bandjava, it did not
come from me; it was he who claimed the title, because, he said, that as Sandakan had been
granted to him he was the Datto of it; it was he who arranged about his title, and he had the
contract written; therefore, nothing of what they have stated since is true, nor have I ceded it
to him without payment of rent; 5,000 dollars a year would be given. We consented for two
reasons: (1) because he reported to us that the Captain-General would destroy everything; and
(2) because the people of Borneo would take possession of Sandakan, and we should not be able
to prevent it, on account of the Captain-General coming.”13
Long afterwards on April 22, 1903, Sultan Jamalul Kiram II signed with the Government of British North
Borneo a Confirmatory Deed whereby the islands of North Borneo, which were not identified in the
January 22, 1878 contract with Baron Gustavos von Overbeck and Alfred Dent, had in fact been always
understood to be included therein. A bracketed clause in the deed state: Cession money, 300 dollars a
year. Arrears for past occupation 3,200 dollars14.
This confirmatory deed is one of the arguments against the Sulu Sultanate’s sovereign and proprietary
rights over Sabah.
The other source of legal conflict is the Treaty of Peace and Capitulation signed by the Sultan of Sulu and
Spain on July 22, 1878. In this agreement the Sultan of Sulu “relinquished” to Spain “his sovereign rights
over all his possessions”. The contention is whether “all his possessions” include North Borneo.
After the 1878 contract was signed with the Sultan, Alfred Dent organized the British North Borneo
Company (BNBC) and bought out Overbeck and transferred his right to BNBC. BNBC also applied
of Indonesia) protested. In response Britain, through a letter by Foreign Minister Lord Earl Graville,
disclaimed any intention to assume dominion or sovereignty over North Borneo. He categorically stated
that, “the sovereignty remains vested in the Sultan”.15
Then on the March 7, 1885 the Madrid Protocol was signed by Spain, Britain and Germany. Article III of
the protocol states:
The Spanish government renounces, as far as regards the British Government, all claims
of sovereignty over the territories of the continent of Borneo, which belong, or which have
belonged in the past to the Sultan of Sulu (Jolo), and which comprise the neighboring islands
of Balambangan, Banguey, and Malawali, as well as those comprised within a zone of three
leagues from the coast, and which form part of the territories administered by the Company
styled the “British North Borneo Company.”16
The 1885 Madrid Protocol implied that sovereignty over North Borneo remains with the Sultan
While civil war was ongoing in Sulu, on May 12, 1888, the “State of North Borneo” was made a British
Protectorate. An agreement between the British North Borneo Company and Great Britain; British
Government admits the North Borneo Company derived its rights and powers to govern the territory. 17
(The North Borneo Company is a chartered company.)
The 1878 Treaty of Peace and Capitulation was the last treaty that the Sulu Sultanate entered into under
Spanish Colonial rule. The treaty allowed Spain to set up a fort in Jolo. Outside the garrison the real
power was the Sultan. But there were flaws in the translation of the Treaty of Peace that would have
implications in the turn-over of the Philippines to the US in 1898. “The Spanish version states that Spain
had sovereignty over Sulu, whereas the Tausug version describes a protectorate relationship rather than
a dependency of Spain”18.
In 1898, a new world power, the United States of America, took over the Philippines while the Filipino
people were waging a revolutionary war of independence from Spain. The Filipino-American War broke-
out in February 1899 and because US troops were tied-down in Luzon it was only in May 1899 when
American soldiers were sent to Sulu to take over the former Spanish fort in Jolo. 19
Final years of the Sultanate of Sulu
Under direct American rule, the Sultan of Sulu was steadily divested of sovereign power. When the
American soldiers, under the command of Gen. John Bates arrived in Sulu, they told Sultan Jamalul
Kiram II that the US has taken over the affairs of Spain and asked him to recognize the US in place of
Spain and respect the Peace and Capitulation Treaty the Sultanate signed with Spain. The sultan refusedsince the US was a different entity. The US should enter into a different treaty with the Sultanate. 20