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One Billion Dollars at Stake in Southeast Asia’s Borneo Conflict

Using airstrikes and mortar fire, Malaysian forces flushed out the clansmen who attacked from the neighbouring Philippines. Picture: AP/ Malaysia's Ministry of Defense.

Using airstrikes and mortar fire, Malaysian forces flushed out the clansmen who attacked from the neighbouring Philippines. Picture: AP/ Malaysia’s Ministry of Defense.

 

BORNEO – Invasion attempt by a group claiming to be inheritors of the Sulu throne with a 100 strong “army” on Borneo’s Malaysian part, has revived a historical feud in the region.

Malaysian government which was granted the territory when it became an independent state in early 1960s now pays to the inheritors a very symbolic rent, $1,700 per year. There are more than 10 trillion of cubic feet of natural gas and more than 1 billion barrels of oil reserves in this region.

 Former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had declared that he recognised the Sulu Sultanate as a legal claimer to the lands of the Republic of Philippines.

Former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had declared that he recognized the Sulu Sultanate as a legal claimer to the lands of the Republic of Philippines.

Invading group came from Simunul Island, and claimed to be “Royal Forces of Sulu and North Bornea Sultanate” engaging in fight with the Malaysian army which has killed more than 50 people so far.

Heritage of colonial period

The Sulu Sultanate was founded in 1457 and maintained its rule until 1800s when English and Spanish colonial forces reached Malaysia. American forces ended the 23 years of Spanish military occupation in the region in 1899.

The Sulu Sultanate was gradually weakened after the Sultan Jamalul Kiram II abdicated his temporary powers. In 1916 the independence of Philipinnes was guaranteed and public administration of Sulu was transferred to Philippines. An American appointed for Sulu governed the region until 1935.

Sulu Sultanate could not stand against colonialist powers and they had to lease Sabah region to a British North Borneo Company. Sulu Sultanate received the amount of rent for every year. After the foundation of Malaysian State in 1963, Sabah region was given to Malaysia instead of Sulu Sultanate. Malaysian Government continued to pay a symbolic amount for rent ($1,710) per year.

The dispute started because of a different interpretation of an agreement between Sulu Sultanate and British Commercial Syndicate which conditioned a payment of 5000 dollars per year.

Malaysia considers that the residents had exercised their act of self determination when they voted to join the Malaysian federation in 1963.

Malaysia esteems the amount an annual cession payment for the disputed state, while the Sultan’s descendants consider it as a rent. The Sultan’s descendants demand the payment be increased to $1 billion in 2010. Malaysia has however ignored the issue.

Philippines in a difficult situation

The Dynasty of Inheritors to the Sulu Sultanate lives in Philippines. They have no autonomous status in terms of politics or administration. There are more than ten members of the dynasty claiming to be inheritors of the Sultanate. Despite these factors, they have reputation among the Philippines government officials. Former Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos had declared that he recognised the Sulu Sultanate as a legal claimer to the lands of the Republic of Philippines.

Philippines Government is actually silent about the demand of support from the Sulu Sultanate for the Sabah region in order not to start a feud with Malaysia. But President of Philippines Benigno Aquino didn’t show a strong reaction to Jamalul Kiram claiming Sultanate although he made a withdrawal call from Borneo Island.

Philippines Government has sent navy deployments to the Sulu Sea to prevent more armed groups to go to the island.

The peace treaty signed between Benigno Aquino and Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) in October 8, 2012 became the subject of the occupation. This treaty which was evoked by Jamalul Kiram provides autonomy to southern region of Philippines where the Muslim majority lives. Kiram expressed his concerns about the possibility to leave some other Sulu Sultanate Regions to MILF.

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