Inside Story

Sultanate of Sulu: Pawn or legacy?

As an armed Filipino group asserts its claim over Sabah, we analyse growing tensions over the island in Borneo.

Malaysia has responded with troops and fighter jets to an ancient and deadly claim to a remote corner of Borneo. It marked a dramatic conclusion to a bizarre three-week siege that appeared to catch the governments of the Philippines and Malaysia off guard.

Part of the reason [for the lack of information] is that they [the Filipinos] do not want any information to leak out. As you know the Filipinos are relaying reports of what is happening on the ground to television stations in Manila, so I think they are trying to keep a tactical advantage by keeping quiet.

– James Chinn, Monash University

A group of Filipino rebels pitched up in a seaside village on the island of Borneo, and asserted their ancestral ownership rights to the territory.

The self-proclaimed Royal Army of Sulu are from the remote Philippine island province of Sulu. They made the short journey by boat to Borneo Island in February, landing in Lahad Datu in Sabah state.

The Philippines had urged Malaysia to show maximum restraint in dealing with the armed group but the killing of a number of policemen saw Malaysia respond with significant force.

This territorial dispute can be traced back to the 15th century. Back then, the region was divided into two main Sultanates.

In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei gave an area of Borneo Island to the Sultan of Sulu. And a deal in 1878 further complicated matters.

I think it’s got very little to do with the actual territorial dispute. The crucial context for all of this is the attempt to settle the long-running civil war in the southern Philippines, in Mindanao … it seems the clan associated with the Sultanate of Sulu has been excluded from these [framework agreement] discussions … and so it appears to have tried leverage this ancient claim – which it has been silent on for the last 40 years or so – to try and compel some kind of concession from Manila or embarrass the government…

Lee Jones, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary and Westfield University

A British trading company agreed to pay Sulu a nominal lease for the area, known as Sabah. Borneo later became part of Malaysia but Sulu became part of the Philippines.

Years on, Malaysia still pays Sulu some $1,500 a year. And modern-day followers of the self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, have revived their ancestral right to the region.

This issue has come at a critical time for Malaysia and the Philippines. The two nations have much in common, but the Sabah territorial dispute has been a thorn in relations for decades.

The neighbours are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and share a long history of diplomatic ties.

Malaysia has been brokering peace talks between the Philippine government and the largest Muslim rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front since 2001.

And both have elections coming up, with a lot riding on how this whole issue was resolved.

So, what is behind the brazen invasion by Sulu’s rag tag rebels? And how will the conflict affect regional relations?

Inside Story, with presenter Jane Dutton, is joined by guests: James Chinn, a professor of political science at Monash University and a commentator on Malaysian affairs; Harry Roque, a law professor from the University of the Philippines; and Lee Jones, a senior lecturer in international politics at Queen Mary and Westfield University, and author of the book ASEAN, Sovereignty and Intervention in Southeast Asia.

“They [the Malaysians] have resorted to airstrikes which means that there is now a breach of human rights law because the use of airstrikes, in my mind, is not proportional and is not absolutely necessary and because they used aircrafts they have also invoked the applicability of international humanitarian law which now gives obligation for Malaysian authorities to ensure the principle of distinction – meaning they should only target combatants and not innocent civillians.”

Harry Roque, University of the Philippines