The family claim of the former sultanate of Borneo threatens to…
It is now an article of faith that when most European colonialists left Africa or Asia, they left behind hastily drawn borders that led to secessionist or irredentist claims and, in cases extremes, to lasting tensions. For the most part, Africa was “spared” from a series of such claims thanks to the original charter of the Organization of African Unity – now the African Union – which insisted that countries maintain and respect existing borders and sovereignty.
Yet not all land claims or disputes are equal. In many cases, there may be valid grounds for land claims. There are also instances where claims may be misleading or based on ancient myths, legends, or imaginary communities. In other cases, there may be tribal, clan or “family” claims, often fueled by predatory law firms or vested interests.
One such case I have considered is the Philippines’ claim to Sabah, one of Malaysia’s 13 states located on the easternmost part of the island of Borneo. The Filipino claim to Sabah is as much a legacy of colonialism as it is rooted in false or misinterpreted historical evidence from Filipino claimants who are, in fact, one family and who claim to be descendants of a sultan born in present-day Malaysia five centuries ago.
The ethno-nationalist politics of the Filipino claim
The Filipino claim is essentially ethno-nationalist and has been used for many years by populist politicians to stir up voters’ emotions. The claim is also somewhat “personal”, although it’s hard to imagine it not being purely for pecuniary gain.
Nonetheless, the claim is rooted in the belief that Sabah “belongs” to the Philippine archipelago, which spans the Sulu Sea – a vast expanse of water that includes the southernmost islands of the Philippines and the coasts eastern Borneo. For the sake of brevity, we can include the Sulu Sea in a “Greater South China Sea”.
While successive Filipino political leaders have used the claim as ethno-nationalist leverage for their own political careers, its importance has faded over the years, as former President of the Philippines Rodrigo Duterte has said that disputes over the area were a waste of time.
On November 12, 2017, Duterte stressed that territorial disputes in the Great South China Sea were best left untouched. In 2022, the issue has become somewhat irrelevant in Philippine electoral politics; Bongbong Marcos, son of Ferdinand Marcos – who served as president from December 1965 to February 1986 – was elected president in May 2022. That Sabah’s claim has become politically irrelevant has drawn a sigh of relief.
write in the Manila Time from the Philippines, Ei Sun Oh explained: “I was very happy to see that, unlike many previous rounds, in the last Philippine presidential election, the issue of Sabah was not so ostensibly presented as a nationalist cause by the various candidates in their efforts to get more votes. I hope that this positive trend, which bodes well for bilateral relations, will continue in the future.
There remain, however, politicians who – much like Donald Trump – would recklessly tweet about Filipino claims to Sabah. In 2020, former Philippine Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin criticized the United States Embassy in Manila for referring to Sabah as part of Malaysia. In a strident and slightly threatening retort, Locsin tweeted: “Sabah is not in Malaysia if you [presumably referring to the US] want to have anything to do with the Philippines.
Locsin’s snap at the US Embassy prompted Hishammuddin Hussein (Malaysian Foreign Minister at the time) to respond, “This is an irresponsible statement that affects bilateral relations…Sabah is and always will be part of from Malaysia.
Economic ties between the countries have been strained due to this historical claim, mostly by one family (more below) for the much of the last decadeas the FinancialTimes reported in 2013.
The historical file
You don’t need to have skin in the game to understand that Sabah is part of Malaysia, spread across a peninsula and Borneo, and that’s historically accurate, albeit immensely complicated, which for space reasons, cannot be fully unraveled. It’s a fairly easy part of the story, but it would be better if it weren’t translated. The Philippine claim is that Sabah is its territory because it was within the boundaries of the former Sultanate of Sulu – and the territory (Sabah) belonged to the Philippines.
This claim seems to contradict the fact that the sultanate was established in 1405 by Sharif ul-Hashim (real name registered as Sayyid Abu Bakr bin Abirin Al Hashmi) a real from present-day Malaysia. The sultanate included Sabah as well as many of the more than 7,000 islands in what we know today as the Great South China Sea.
More recently, historical records show that Sabah was leased to Brunei and then to the Sultan of Sulu by Baron Gustav von Overbeck (born in Germany in 1830 and died in London in 1894) around 1878.
The Philippines was still a Spanish colony at the time and had no rights over Sabah. Von Overbeck then sold his rights to Alfred Dent who founded the North Borneo Company which administered Sabah between 1882 and 1946 when Britain took control of Sabah. When the British left Malaysia (as it was then called), Sabah naturally became part of the Southeast Asian country.
This transition to Britain and then Malaysia is confirmed by records which show that the Sultanate of Sulu had indeed existed in the Sulu Archipelago for several centuries before its dismantling in 1915, when Sultan Jamal ul-Kiram resigned. . Harold C Conklin of Yale University translated reports which confirmed that in 1878 Jamal ul-Alam, then Sultan of Sulu, granted a “permanent lease covering his lands and territories in the island of Borneo”.
This question of historical ownership only gets more complicated and further weakens the Philippine case the further you delve into history. The claims are brought by the Kiram family, who took their case to European courts.
The case of the Sultan’s relatives
The fact that the basis of the Philippine claim is weak did not stop eight people who claimed to be descendants of the last officially recognized sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II, who ascended the throne at the age of 10 in 1894. The Kiram family continues to lay claim to the resource-rich state of Sabah. But they don’t seem to really want the territory, but access to the pecuniary gains from Sabah’s resources.
In their latest decision (in June 2022), the Kiram family’s lawyers in London served a notice of seizure of assets on two Luxembourg subsidiaries of the Malaysian national oil company Petronas (Petronas generates 11% of Malaysian government revenue) for enforce a $15 billion (R247-billion) arbitration award linked to a ‘colonial-era’ land deal.
It’s amazing. The Kiram family are being backed by a London law firm and funded by a British investment fund, Therium, in a lawsuit which, so far this month, has cost more than $10 million. The procedure has been described by legal experts as one of the most unusual international arbitration disputes in history.
While a French arbitral tribunal ordered Malaysia to pay the sum to descendants to settle the disputed colonial-era land deal, the Paris Court of Appeal had “suspended” the decision, after concluding that the execution of the sentence could affect the sovereignty of the country. The Kiram family have persisted and are trying to seize Malaysian government assets around the world to enforce the $14.9bn arbitration award they won against Malaysia – despite the case being temporarily halted by a French court, according to Reuters.
Learn more in Daily Maverick: “Global land ownership and dispossession offer lessons for South Africa”
These financial claims by the Kiram family raised eyebrows because they did not include “property” in Malaysia’s poorest state, according to Rais Hussin of EMIR researchan independent think tank:
“What is most unique is the nature of the Kiram ‘family’ (first) legal salvo. Rather than reclaim Sabah, he targeted Malaysia’s most valuable asset: Petronas. If the legal claim is based on the Kiram family’s ownership of and Sabah, shouldn’t the case rest entirely and completely with the state? Yet, that was not the case. The Kiram family does not want the heavy responsibility of taking over one of the poorest states in the Federation of Malaysia.
In this case, the Philippine government has already insisted that the The Kiram family drop their claims. In February 2013, then-Philippine President Benigno Aquino threatened a clan leader with legal action if he failed to end an armed occupation of a fishing village in neighboring Malaysia.
“If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of state law will be used to obtain justice for all those who have been put in harm’s way,” Aquino said in a televised speech aimed specifically at the family and their supporters. .
Aquino warned Jamalul Kiram, the fictional head of the family, that he could be prosecuted for violating Philippine laws prohibiting provoking war or exposing Filipinos to reprisals, unless he directs his supporters in Sabah to withdraw. It should be noted that due to the Kiram family’s Malaysian background, Malaysia paid the family a stipend of around 5,000 ringgit (R18,600) per year.
So what can we get out of this very basic expense of what FinancialTimes described as one of the most unusual international arbitration disputes in history?
Well, the first is that the political claim is misleading because the first Sultan of Sulu was from Johor in what is now Malaysia. Second, Sabah was ceded to the present territory of Malaysia on the island of Borneo, and it became part of the 13 independent states of Malaysia when the British settlers left (along with Sarawak, also in Borneo).
Third, the Philippine government warned the Kiram family to cease its representations to Sabah, but the family continued to pursue their claims, sometimes “with deadly results”. Fourth, the Kiram family is obviously ‘funded’ by a British investment fund, Therium, and is primarily looking for financial gain, instead of ‘one of the poorest states in the Federation of Malaysia’.
Finally, the persistent claims of the Kiram family threaten regional stability, as warned by former Philippine President Aquino. DM
Ismail Lagardien is currently visiting Southeast Asia and studying the region’s geo-economic and strategic issues.