What to do with Sabah

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As the 300 followers of the Sultanate of Sulu remain holed up in Sabah, the Philippines has no choice but to immediately act to prevent unwanted consequences that could lead to the “suspension” of relations with Malaysia again or, worse, possible bloodshed.

One option: For President Benigno S. Aquino III to reconvene soonest the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on the Sabah Issue that then President Fidel V. Ramos created in 1993 but has lain dormant since the Arroyo administration.

Created days before Ramos’ historic visit to Malaysia in 1993, the council was already in the thick of discussion with Malaysia on economic activities for the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu when its work was stalled first by the 1998 elections and later by the ouster of then President Joseph Estrada in 2001.

Historically, and without question, Sabah belongs to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.

But when the Philippines began pressing its claim on the North Borneo territory, bilateral relations between the two ASEAN member countries went cold: Malaysia “suspended” diplomatic relations with the Philippines in September 1968 and the Philippines responded in kind. Diplomatic relations between the two countries resumed in December 1969, but they were at best “chilly.”

Because of the chilly bilateral relations, Moro National Liberation Front chairman Nur Misuari in late 1969 took up Malaysia on its offer to train the Southern Philippine rebels. He led 90 handpicked men to a training camp in West Malaysia, Pangkor Island in the State of Perak.

“There the men underwent more than one year training, including warfare, military history and tactics, weapons, politics, communications, and self-descent from helicopters. Nur Misuari was the leader of this first class of trainees, called the First Ninety, or F-1 for Freedom-1,” said Tom Stem, author of Nur Misuari, An Authorized Biography.

The development led President Ferdinand Marcos to announce on Aug. 4, 1977 that “the Philippines is taking definite steps to eliminate one of the burdens of ASEAN, the Philippine claim to Sabah.”

In addition, on June 25, 1980, then Philippine Foreign Minister Arturo Tolentino informed the ASEAN Foreign Ministers Conference in Kuala Lumpur that the Philippines’ claim to Sabah “is closed.”

These declarations were, however, overshadowed by the security problems brought about by the New People’s Army in the North and in the Visayas, and the MNLF in the South which the government had to focus on. In 1986, relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur stayed icy despite the EDSA revolt that led to the ascension of President Corazon Aquino into power.

Relations thawed only when Ramos made his historic visit to Kuala Lumpur in late January of 1993. It was the first visit of a sitting Philippine president to Malaysia.

On Jan. 11, 1993, prior to his decision to visit Malaysia, Ramos issued Executive Order 46 establishing the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on the Sabah Issue. As Presidential Adviser on Foreign Affairs, I was designated officer in charge of the council’s secretariat.

A few days later, Ramos announced he was going to Malaysia to undertake his first “official” visit from Jan. 27-30. This despite having gotten no official invitation from Malaysian Prime Minister Mohamad Mahathir. All Ramos had was a private invitation from the Malaysian King and the Malaysian Parliament.

After he was received by the King, Ramos was informed that Mahathir had agreed to meet him privately. Mahathir was accompanied by his private secretary while I accompanied Ramos.

It was at this meeting that Ramos delivered his famous icebreaker. Shaking Mahathir’s hand, he said, “Let’s put all our problems in the backburner and move forward as brothers.”

Mahathir agreed and personally invited Ramos to stay in Kuala Lumpur and the rest of Malaysia for the next three days.

The three days produced a memorandum of understanding on the Joint Commission on the Bilateral Cooperation finally signed in July 1993, Border Crossing Agreement and Joint Patrol signed in 1996 and the establishment of the Malaysian Consulate in Davao in December 1995.

After Ramos’ visit to Malaysia, the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on Sabah first met in February 1993. It agreed to quietly work with the Malaysians to uplift the economic conditions of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu by establishing a semi-private corporation to engage in any economic and trading arrangements that would financially upgrade the lives of the heirs.

To jumpstart the economic activities for the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, a validated list of heirs first had to be created. Thus, from mid-1993 to 1996, the council tediously examined, validated and revalidated documents and other historical proofs that would confirm who among the so many claimants were the direct real heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.

The validation process took much longer and a semifinal list was finally drawn in 1997.

In mid-1997, the proposed corporation’s by-laws had also been finalized, and the council was all set to submit the documents to Ramos and Mahathir for approval. However, the campaign fever for the 1998 national elections overtook events.

In July 1999, one year after he became president, Estrada issued Executive Order 117 reconstituting the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on the Sabah Issue. However, little would happen during the short-lived Estrada administration.

When President Gloria Arroyo took over, I turned over to then Secretary of National Defense and later Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita all the records of the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on the Sabah Issue and briefed him on what had been accomplished by the council so far and what could still be further done.

It is worth noting that during Ramos’ time, when the council was actively meeting and busy evaluating the documents and personalities of the claimants, the Malaysian embassy in Manila was properly informed of developments on the council’s working progress.

When the issue on the capitalization of the proposed corporation came up, the Malaysian embassy had been authorized by Kuala Lumpur to assure the council that whatever amount would be decided upon by the council, the Malaysian government was willing to sit down with it and work out arrangements to provide the sum.

If and when reconvened, the Bipartisan Executive-Legislative Advisory Council on the Sabah Issue can take up from where it left off more than a decade ago.

The council should be mandated to restart a thorough legal, political, financial, historical and strategic study on the Sabah issue. It should focus on the definition of the territorial extent of the Philippine claim, the legal position on the status of the Sultanate of Sulu, and the financial implications to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.

(A retired career diplomat, Jose Apolinario L. "Jun" Lozada, Jr. served as presidential adviser for foreign affairs to President Fidel V. Ramos. As member of the House of Representatives, 1998-2004, he was chairman of the House Committee on Foreign Relations. He is now consultant in the Office of the Vice President.)

(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. VERA is Latin for “true.”)