Sunday, April 5, 2015

Why abandon a legitimate claim?

By Val G. Abelgas
Sabah-map.2Two disturbing news reports came out over the weekend that could compromise our country’s claim to Sabah.
One was written by the Vera Files that said the Philippines has offered to downgrade its claim to Sabah in exchange for Malaysia’s support for its case against China before the United Nations. The other, which appeared in the Manila Times, reported the concern raised by the Sultanate of Sulu that the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) would drop the Sabah claim through the parliament that would be formed once the Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) becomes operational.
Vera Files revealed a note verbale the Department of Foreign Affairs handed to the Malaysian Embassy last week that said the DFA is “reviewing” its 2009 protest before the UN over a joint submission by Malaysia and Vietnam to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf (CLCS) in which Malaysia claimed an extended continental shelf that was clearly projected from Sabah.
In the note verbale, the DFA said its review of the 2009 protest would depend on Malaysia’s response to Manila’s two requests related to the South China Sea territorial claims.
The first request is for Malaysia to “confirm” that its claim of an extended continental shelf is “entirely from the mainland coast of Malaysia, and not from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands.” The second is for Malaysia to confirm that it “does not claim entitlement to maritime areas beyond 12 nautical miles from any of the maritime features in the Spratly islands it claims.”
Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), a state is entitled to 12-nautical-mile territorial sea over which it exercises sovereignty.
Former Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations Lauro Baja Jr. said the Philippine claim to Sabah will be “prejudiced” if Malaysia accedes to DFA’s request. “We are in effect withdrawing our objection to Malaysia’s claim of ownership to Sabah,” he said.
Vera Files quoted a DFA official as saying, however, that the Philippine claim to Sabah would remain intact even if Manila withdraws its 2009 objection to Malaysia’s submission to the UN, to which Baja countered, “Even if we are not formally dropping the Sabah claim, it (the withdrawal of the protest) can be used as evidence against our claim.”
The claim by the Sultanate of Sulu over Sabah is based on historical facts and backed by legal documents that are available in the archives of Spain, Great Britain, Holland, Germany and the United States, as shown by a thorough study conducted by the Philippine Senate and House of Representatives from 1950 to 1963.
It all started when at the height of the Suluk-Spanish War between 1675 and 1704, the Sultan of Brunei negotiated with his cousin, the Sultan of Sulu, to send military aid to his kingdom to quell the rebellion mounted by the Brunei king’s half-brother. In gratitude, the Sultan of Brunei gave North Borneo, which is now called Sabah, to the Sultan of Sulu and vested the latter with sovereign rights.
Two hundred years later, the ceded territory of North Borneo was leased from Sultan Jamalul Ahlam by the British East India Company, which was later renamed British North Borneo Company, through a lease contract signed on January 22, 1878 by the Sultan and Gustavo von Overbeck, an Austrian national representing the British firm.
The annual lease payment was a meager amount of 5,300 Mexican gold in exchange for the company’s rights to exploit and develop the territory’s natural resources. After signing the contract, Overbeck sold his rights to Alfred Dent, a British subject, who then became the sole owner of the leasehold rights.
In 1888, the British government signed a Protectorate Agreement with the British North Borneo Company declaring that the British Crown had the power to exercise external sovereignty over North Borneo (Sabah). Thus, the British Government recognized unilaterally – without the consent of the Sultan of Sulu – the leased-territory of North Borneo as an “independent State”.
In 1962, the Philippine government, under then President Diosdado Macapagal, filed a formal claim on Sabah before the United Nations on behalf of the Sultan of Sulu based on a special power of attorney granted by the Sultan.
On July 9, 1963, Great Britain and the Federation of Malaya signed the Acts Relating to Malaysia in London that recognized the establishment of the Federation of Malaysia that included the leased-territory of North Borneo as the New State of Sabah.
In February 2013, some 400 armed followers of the Sultan of Sulu crossed into Sabah and had a standoff with Malaysian forces in an effort to awaken Philippine authorities to pursue its claim to Sabah. Instead of backing their claim, the Aquino government threatened to sue and imprison them, saying that the Sultan’s assertion of sovereignty over Sabah was “futile.”
I agree with Ambassador Baja that the Philippine position on Sabah is much stronger than its Spratly islands claim and that economically, the timber and mineral-rich Sabah is much more valuable than Spratlys.
The Philippines stands to gain more and has more solid evidence to pursue its claim over Sabah than it has over Spratlys, and yet administrations after administrations have chosen to ignore the Sultan of Sulu’s plea to assert the claim. It would seem the country’s leaders prefer the status quo than ignite tensions with Malaysia, which has been mediating the peace talks between the Philippine government and the Muslim rebels.
Now, it seems the Aquino government is willing to basically give up the Sabah claim to pursue its flawed peace agreement that would also virtually give up sovereignty in Mindanao, and to pursue a legitimate claim to the Spratlys islands that need no boosting from a quid pro quo offer contained in the latest note verbale.
I asked in an article, entitled “Land Below the Wind,” on October 30, 2011: “Why gear up for war for a few shoals and islets in the middle of the ocean, and not lift a finger for an oil-rich land as big as Mindanao that is legally and historically a part of the once-great Sultanate of Sulu?”
I must ask that question again.

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