Wednesday, April 18, 2018


By Roger Pe
Business Mirror
April 19, 2018 issue

Until March this year, I have never been to Sulu, particularly Tawi-Tawi, a remote group of islands suffering from unfair travel advisories most of the time. Friends have told me, Sulu’s history and its sultanate (Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) would inevitably surface in any conversation, and the word “Kiram” would often be associated with it.

True enough, the name that always fascinated me, was casually mentioned in the van that was to take us to our hotel. That heightened my curiosity. As soon as we arrived at Rachel’s Place, a hotel I never knew existed in that seemingly lonely planet, I was ready to ask more questions. But the dissonant voices in the lobby reduced my queries to a mere thought balloon, lost in the din of voices getting louder and louder as we headed back to our rooms. For a moment, I had forgotten about “Kiram.”

When I was in grade school, I remember how the Philippines’ claim to Sabah was a smoldering issue. North Borneo was its old name, under the sultanate, and Federation of Malaysia was still not born. It always exploded on the pages Manila Times and Philippine Free Press, publications my mother partly distributed in my hometown.

I became a voracious reader especially when copies of them remained unsold. Needless to say, Sabah was a hot topic because the town was geographically akin to Borneo.

Sabah eventually became part of Malaysia. The newly formed Federation of Malaysia had annexed it in 1963 because of British connections, complex things and through a referendum some people said it stage-managed. Sources said the "referendum" did not involve the entire population of North Borneo at that time, but only representative consultations. The UN mission report also noted that, "there was no reference to a referendum or plebiscite in the request.”

The Philippines would break diplomatic relations with Malaysia. The issue had remained in the back burner ever since the three-nation ‘Maphilindo’ (Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia) group vanished into thin air. Malaysia had made strong statements: “It does not recognize and will not entertain any claim, nor bring the matter to the International Court of Justice even if the Philippines would.”

Fast forward to 2013

The Sabah standoff: Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, a descendant of the Sultan of Sulu from 1568, ordered his family and followers to keep the sultanate’s historic territorial claims to Sabah burning. His younger brother Esmail, and about 200 followers intruded into Sabah’s coastal village of Lahad Datu.
At this point, my interest of wanting to meet any of Kiram’s relatives was getting more intense. It heightened when a cameraman brought by Department of Tourism to the trip, Angelo “Toto” Ancino, my roommate, told me he had personally met Kiram’s daughter, Princess Jacel Kiram.

For days, I nagged him to death about Jacel. I finally got an answer after a week. On March 3, 2018, at three o’clock in the afternoon, I finally came face-to-face with her.

Meeting the Princess

Princess Jacel was wearing a hijab, all smiles and charming when we shook hands. What struck me most was she enunciated English words with crystal clear clarity and nary a regional accent. I almost told her: “You should voice for radio commercials.”

I would describe Jacel with much profundity but “normal” seems to be the better word. She is normal, yes. Normal, if your definition of being one is someone who speaks about peace, equality, and diversity is not an issue. She is intelligent, mild-mannered in her decorum throughout our conversation.

Jacel resides in Maharlika Village, Taguig City, a village created by the government as a subdivision for Muslim Filipinos in 1974. Her grandmother from her mother’s side was from Pangasinan. Her grandfather hailed from Sorsogon. Her father Sultan Jamalul Kiram III met her Christian mother when the latter was reviewing for CPA exams. Her name is a marriage of Muslim and Christian words: Jamalul and Celia.

Being a product of a religious inter-marriage, her clan celebrates Muslim and Christians occasions, like Hariraya and Christmas traditions. In an age when Christians and Muslims stand apart from each other on opposite sides of a very huge divide, hers is a shining example of harmonious co-existence. Beyond the differences, Jacel sees a common ground when it comes to moral values and principles - charity, devotion and faith, just as how other major world religions preach the same. 

When she graduated from De La Salle University College of Saint Benilde (she finished Bachelor of Artswith an Inter-Disciplinary Studies degree) in 2002, her The Sulu Sultanate’s Genealogy And Its Relation To The Philippines’ Claim To Sabah” was declared Best Thesis.

The daughter of the late 33rd Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III has become an icon of peace, inter-faith, women empowerment and social upliftment, livelihood and development of Muslims in the Philippines, especially in Mindanao.

“I wish people would get rid of their misconceptions about Muslims. We can co-exist,” she says. She laments about many incidents in the city that are still causing her deep pain to the point of being callous. Taxi drivers, for example, speed away and do not take her and her fellow Muslims as passengers if they find out they are going to Maharlika Village.

Her husband, Moh Yusop Hasan, a Lieutenant Coronel in the Philippine Army echoes her sentiments: “Muslim Filipinos had been branded as “bandidos” (bandits), pirates and other unpalatable names for centuries. We should correct the many social injustices that have been heaped on them. It’s about time that people erase the long-time propaganda that they are “terrorists,” he says.

Jacel, herself, was branded a “terrorist” by the Malaysian government when the Lahad Datu incident drew headlines.“I am not a terrorist.  I am just fighting for what is legally, historically and rightfully ours. This fight is not just my fight, but Filipinos’ fight as well,” she exclaims.

“If am being labelled as a ‘terrorist’ fighting for what is ours as Filipinos, let them. Let history be the judge,” she says. She is sad about younger generations of Filipinos who are afflicted with historical amnesia and have forgotten the glorious past of the sultanate. She maintains that the 2013 events in Lahad Datu were simply an assertion of our rights.

Weapon of the weak

“The word ‘terrorist’ is the weapon of the weak against the strong, a defense mechanism of people who make their own rules,” Hasan says. The real ‘terrorists’ are abusers. Muslim people are kind. That’s the difference. They only lose their patience against abuses. Lands were taken away from them. They could not fish from their own seas and do not benefit from their own natural resources. There is widespread inequality and wealth belongs only to a few,” he blurts out.

Jacel has attended many national and international events as a speaker. Among them as head of a Philippine delegation and guest of honor to the 19th World Festival of Youth and Students in the World Federation of Democratic Youth held in Sochi, Russia. She also went to China to celebrate the 600th Year of Sulu-China Friendship, coinciding with the book launching of “Friendship Without Borders,” in Guangxi. She then participated in a United Nations sponsored conference on Drug Control Program held in UN Headquarters, Vienna, Austria. She was also the Chairperson of People’s Coalition for Peace.

In the bigger scheme of things, Jacel says: “We should always go back to history to get a better perspective,” she exhales, sounding like exhausted because “much of our history is being distorted,” she says.

“Sana hindi na lang ako (I wish it should’ve not been me) so people won’t think of me as biased,” she says. But she is optimistic, that history will be corrected with regards to the Philippines’ territorial claim to Sabah. 

While historically, the Philippines has the right to reclaim Sabah, some people doubt if it can recover it now. “Unless we are ready to go to war,” one Filipino lawyer said.

“The best way to reclaim Sabah is do it now. The government must have the will to do it. Not giving up on our proprietary rights and fighting for what is due us are the things to do. As far as Malaysia is concerned, skirting the issue and not wanting to talk about it means only one thing: It does not own Sabah,” she quips.

Malaysian point-of-view

In “Another Brick In The Wall”, a Malaysian political party blog, the unnamed author unleashes fire and brimstone: “The word ‘permanent lease’ means “it cannot be reclaimed” and the words in the grant did not say lease but cede or give away for a certain consideration, and that the grant for a ‘permanent lease’ meant giving away Sabah.”

Raymond Tombung in his article in Free Malaysia Today said: “The Sabah claim will continue to be raised by the Philippines and Sulu as it is powerful and emotive international issue which many leaders from Manila will find convenient to bleed for political mileage. And the many “sultans” in Sulu will continue to cast their hungry eyes at Sabah, considered to be “the last gold coin” and aspire, albeit hopelessly, to try and achieve the impossible.”

Tombung continues: “If Sulu, by a very long shot, gets back Sabah, will it be able to pay Malaysia all the billions utilized to develop it since 1963? Sulu cannot be so arrogant and shameless to think that it can simply and freely take back a piece of land it “owned” 135 years ago after it has been developed by someone else for half a century, “ he says.

In a series of articles written by Joseph G.Lariosa, a Fil-Am correspondent of Journal GlobaLinks (JGL), a Chicago, Illinois-based news agency and a veteran journalist, he asks:

“Did the Malaysian government ever allow the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu to talk to their tenants in Sabah to find out their sentiments if they were really against the Sultanate by way of a referendum for the purpose? Did the Malaysian government allow the Sultanate air time in mass media in Sabah to explain to their tenants that because they are residing on a piece of land owned by a Filipino Sultanate of Sulu, they are supposed to pay rental directly to their landlord – the heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu – not to a third party or middleman such as the Malaysian government?”

Lariosa then drops a bomb: “If I were the heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu, while they are waiting for the ruling of the ICJ, I am not going to encash the 6,300 Malaysian ringgits to protest and humiliate the Malaysian government just as Fidel Castro refused and refuses to encash the US$2,000 annual rental payment of the U.S. to use the Guantanamo U.S. Base in order to humiliate the U.S. into giving up the perpetual rental under the Platt Amendment.”

“Come to think of it,”Lariosa declares. “When the Philippines leased the Clark Air Base and Subic Base to the U.S., which account for 245 square miles land area, the U.S. was paying $200-M annual rental to the Philippine government. While Sabah, which has 28,430 square miles, or 116 times bigger than the U.S. Bases, the Malaysian government is only renting Sabah for a song!” 

The Sabah issue has created another monster and Jacel’s heart bleeds for Filipino refugees who have become hostage to the territorial pendulum. “The world needs to know about the plight of the “Halaws”, people and children that have been driven away because of this,” she says.

Last year, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur reported that over 569,451 or 18.2 percent of the total population of Sabah are Filipinos, both documented and undocumented.

Death of Sultan Jamalul
Kiram III

Sultan Jamalul KiramIII died months after the Lahad Datu siege. A younger brother, Esmail Kiram II, in a succession often beset by clan in-fighting and claims by fake descendants of the once-powerful Muslim royalty, succeeded him. When Esmail died on September 19, 2015, another brother, Phugdalon Kiram, was named as the new sultan.

Based on the Kiram family tree, Jamalul was the closest living kin to the sultan, the nephew of 33rd Sultan Esmail Kiram I, and at the same time, the son of crown prince Punjungan Kiram. Ex-Senator Santanina Rasul also noted that former United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon had recognized him as the real heir.

He was born on July 16 1938 in Maimbung, a small town in the province of Sulu and was the eldest son of Sultan Punjungan Kiram and Sharif Usna Dalus Strattan and was directly descended from the first Sultan of Sulu, Sharif ul-Hashim of Sulu, of the Banu Hashem tribe.

From Sulu High School he moved to Notre Dame in the capital of Jolo, and then enrolled at Manuel L Quezon University in Manila, where he studied Law, which he did not finish. Having joined the Ruma Betchara (Council of the Sultan) during the reign (1962-74) of his uncle, Sultan Esmail Kiram, he ruled as “interim sultan”, while his father, who ruled between 1974 and 1981, was absent in Sabah. In 1984, he was proclaimed the 33rd (or possibly the 39th) Sultan of Sulu and was crowned in Jolo in 1986.

Scholarly facts

In a historical discourse and most exhaustive journal written about the Sabah issue, “Philippines Claim to Sabah: Legal and Historical Bases” by Amando Respicio-Boncales, Graduate Student of Northern Illinois University, with Dr. Kenton James Klymer as Academic Adviser states that the Philippine-Malaysian dispute over the State of Sabah remains “a contentious diplomatic issue”.

Boncales’ objective of the study was to shed light on the historical background of the Philippines’ claim over Sabah by examining how various authors in the field presented the issue. Here are some excerpts:

The sultanate of Sulu was founded in 1380, nearly one and a half century before the arrival of the Spaniards in the Philippines. The sultanate possessed an efficient political organization, extending its influence in Zamboanga, Basilan, Palawan, aside from the Sulu archipelago and was granted the northeastern part of the territory as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei against his enemies in 1658.

When the British came and ruled what was to be Malaysia, the Philippine government says the contract of 1878 was a lease, and not a transfer of ownership or sovereignty. William Treacher, governor of Borneo from 1881 to 1887, who was present at the signing of the contract and a witness, characterized the contract as a lease and referred to the money payment as annual rentals.

The late Diosdado Macapagal, who served in the Department of Foreign Affairs in 1946 and later became President of the Philippines, filed a claim to the United Nations on June 22, 1962. It claimed sovereignty, jurisdiction and proprietary ownership of North Borneo claiming it has the legal and historical rights to North Borneo.

Macaskie Dictum of 1939

Charles Macaskie, one of North Borneo's most successful colonial officials, on the other hand, had a different view. The Chief Justice in 1934 and Deputy Governor in 1936, sat as judge in a 1939 case where nine heirs of Sultan Jamalul Kiram claimed money owed to them under the 1878 grant.

Through their attorney, the heirs showed only an English translation of the Grant of 1878 that incorrectly presented the claim as a cession instead of a lease. (A later translation made it clear that this was an incorrect translation). Years after the Macaskie dictum was made, the Philippine government made moves to translate the Grant of 1878. The result showed it was a Lease Agreement.

Francis Harrison, former United States Governor General of the Philippines, eventually repudiated the Macaskie judgment stating, “Upon examination of our own translation of the original document (in photostat) it will be seen that Maxwell and Gibson, the English authors on whose text the decision of Justice Mackaskie was based, have changed the language so as to make the document a grant cession instead of lease, as it really was, and as the word “padjak” in the original, really means.” 

“In view of this vital divergence from the original text, I do not find myself able to give full faith and credit to the opinion of Justice Mackaskie in the famous case in 1939 in Sandakan,” he said.

Moreover, in a letter addressed to then Vice President and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Elpidio Quirino, dated February 27, 1947, Harrison explained:

“In reviewing the subject of the claims of the Sultanate of Sulu to their ancient patrimony in North Borneo, one must come to the conclusion that the action of the British Government in announcing on the sixteenth of July (annexation of North Borneo to the British Crown), just twelve days after the inauguration of the Republic of the Philippines, a step taken by the British Government unilaterally, and without any special notice to the Sultanate of Sulu, nor consideration of their legal rights, was an act of political aggression which should promptly be repudiated by the Government of the Republic of the Philippines.”

Harrison concluded:  “The Malaysian claim to Sabah, based on the British claim, is not sustainable. The territory was only leased to the British North Borneo Company and not ceded as the Great Britain, and later Malaysia, had claimed.” The claimants also argued that the sultanate’s territory had been leased only to Britain, with no agreement on incorporation into Malaysia.

Current status

Every year, the Malaysian Embassy in the Philippines issues a check in the amount of 5,300 Malaysian Ringgit (about P77,000) to the legal counsel of Jamalul Kiram’s descendants.

Before he became spokesperson of President Duterte, Harry Roque, then a law professor at the University of the Philippines, said: “In my opinion, this is more consistent with a lease rather than a sale, because you can’t have a purchase price which is not fixed, and which is payable until kingdom come,” he said.

Though the Lahad Datu incursion failed and former President Benigno Aquino weighed in against her father saying the insurgency had caused “death and suffering among his own people, Princess Jacel says “it brought attention to the largely dormant issue of the claim by the Philippines to parts of Borneo, based on the Sultanate of Sulu’s past control over the area.

Decades and centuries may go, but Jacel says her family remembers its history as clear as it were yesterday. No change of presidency, not even the odds posed by the Malaysian security forces are going to make them forget that Sabah used to belong to the Sulu Sultanate.