In 2007, Forbes declared Haji Hassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of Brunei, the world’s richest monarch, with a net worth of $22 billion and a life of pomp and splendor in the largest palace in the world.
In stark contrast is Jamalul Kiram III, Sultan of Sulu, who lives in a small home in Taguig, Metro Manila—a home in danger of being foreclosed.
“Hindi ko kayang mag-shopping sa mall,” Kiram told I-Witness host Sandra Aguinaldo in the documentary Haring Walang Kaharian. “I don’t have the money to spend.”
Staking their claim
Politics plays a part in why Jamalul Kiram III’s family has fallen on hard times.
He is only one of many descendants claiming the sultanate of Sulu—and with it, the ownership of Sabah. Since siblings may inherit the sultanate, there are several Kiram family members insisting that they are the rightful descendants of the original sultan.
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According to Kiram, he is descended from Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim, the first sultan and founder of the Sulu Sultanate and a descendant of the Prophet Mohammad, a report on Balitanghali said.
According to the report, Kiram was born in Maimbung, Sulu in 1938. He studied at Notre Dame of Jolo College and took up law at Manuel L. Quezon University.
His name first became familiar to the public in 2007, when he ran for senator under the ticket of former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo.
He was part of Team Unity, along with Edgardo Angara, Joker Arroyo, Ralph Recto, and Tito Sotto. Although he did not win in the election, he was the leading candidate in Lanao del Norte, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi.
Before this, he served as Arroyo's Presidential Adviser on Muslim Royalty Concerns in 2005, was on the Joint Legislative and Executive Advisory Council on the Sabah Claim from 2000 to 2004, and was a member of the Philippine Olympic Committee from 1996 to 2000.
Based on information released by Malacañang, Kiram's father, Datu Punjungan Kiram, was a former Crown Prince but was stripped of his title.
Punjungan was a brother of Sultan Esmail Kiram I. When Esmail died, his son Mahakuttah Kiram was crowned sultan. But even then, Jamalul's father insisted his was the rightful claim to the throne.
Mahakuttah Kiram was the last sultan of Sulu to be recognized by the Philippine government, and was installed with a public coronation by President Ferdinand Marcos in 1974, according to the Royal Sultanate of Sulu website.
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But in his résumé, obtained by GMA News Research when he ran for senator in 2007, Jamalul III claimed he was proclaimed the 33rd sultan of Sulu in 1984, and crowned in 1986, the Balitanghali report said.
According to Malacañang, the information they released was not an official genealogical chart or family tree, nor did it represent the official position of the Philippines, the report said.
‘Sabah is never for sale’
Jamalul Kiram III shot back into the spotlight on February 9, 2013, when his brother, Raja Muda Azzimudie Kiram, and over a hundred supporters illegally entered Lahad Datu, Sabah to stake their claim on the land.
By February 24, Malaysian troops had surrounded Kiram’s supporters and the Philippine government had sent a ship to Sabah, asking them to come home.
It has been decades since the Philippines actively pursued its claim on Sabah; however, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu receive a nominal yearly rent from the Malaysian government.
Once divided amongst themselves, a Kiram family member told ‘I-Witness,’ each heir receives less than P700.
Related story: Aquino warns 'conspirators' in Sabah standoff
A report by GMA News said that Kiram and his followers “were demanding recognition from Malaysia and a renegotiation of the original terms of lease…including a rent higher than the current paltry sum paid by the Malaysian government.”
These demands have been rejected by the Malaysian officials, and tension escalated until March 1—when the standoff turned violent and resulted in two dead Malaysian police officers and a reported 12 dead among Kiram’s supporters.
Despite this, Raja Muda’s group has no plans to return to the Philippines. In an earlier report by Malaysia’s The Star Online, he said their group was willing to fight to the death.
This echoes the statement Dayang Dayang Jacel Kiram, the sultan’s daughter, made to Sandra Aguinaldo in February: “This is not about money. This is about principle.”
Her words offer a look into the personal nature of the sultan’s claim: “Grabe ang pagkahanga ko sa daddy ko. Nakita ko yung pinagtiisan niya with all the offers that have been made to him. He did not take them because my lolo said that Sabah is never for sale.”
‘Normal lang kami’
Back in the Philippines, the life of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III is suprisingly ordinary.
He has nine children—and like ordinary parents, the sultan and his wife must find ways to make ends meet. Helping them are his two daughters, Dayang Dayang Jacel and Dayang Dayang Jahara.
Jahara, a call center agent, says there is “nothing special” about being a princess apart from having the dignity that comes with their family name.
“Normal lang kami,” she says. “Akala ng mga tao mayaman kami, pero nagko-commute ako sa office. ‘Yung salary, nagagamit para sa amang sumasailalim sa dialysis.”
Kiram is now suffering from kidney disease, and undergoes dialysis weekly. Jahara remembers hearing tales of their family’s past—of a vast collection of gold, of how the crown prince was not allowed to set foot on the ground.
“I was amazed,” she admits. “Napaisip ako, ‘bakit kaya ngayon, hindi na ganun?’”
Also read: ARMM governors ask fellow Pinoy muslims in Sabah to 'come home'
Still, Jacel and Jahara both speak highly of their father, now 74 years old.
Their father has received offers to sell Sabah for a lump sum, Jacel told ‘I-Witness,’ but he refused despite being in need of money.
Jacel added: “Ang assessment ko nga, yung pagiging sultan, ibinibigay yan sa pusong sultan—sa may mabuting puso.”
A question of finances
As of March 4, the Raja Muda group still refuses to return to the Philippines.
President Benigno Aquino III has stated that the Kiram family did not have the resources to stage the standoff, and called upon their alleged “backers” to stop aggravating the situation: “Hindi po kakayanin ng angkan ni Sultan Jamalul Kiram III na gawing mag-isa ang ganitong uri ng pagkilos.”
Aquino added that while the Philippines’ claim to Sabah stands, the supporters of Kiram should not have acted without the Filipino government.
“Pinalubha nila ang isyung ito, at ginagawa nila ito habang inilalagay sa peligro ang daan-daang libong Pilipino,” said Aquino, saying that the current situation is one without a solution in view.
What the Kiram family plans to do in the event that Sabah is ceded to them isn’t clear, either.
After all, how would you develop a province and take care of its people if the sultanate itself is penniless?
A line from Aguinaldo’s documentary reflects on this problem: “Wala na ang karangyaan at kapangyarihan. Ano pa nga ba ang silbi ng hari kung wala na ang kaharian?”
‘I am the sultan of Sulu’
There are many things complicating Jamalul Kiram III’s claim to Sabah—the contested line of succession, their family’s difficult financial status, the violent standoff in Lahad Datu.
But if you ask the family, they say they will never give up on their claim, nor will they tire of spreading the word to whoever will listen.
Princess Fatima Kiram, the sultan’s wife and spokesperson, told ‘I-Witness’ that her husband’s resolve is firm: “Siya ‘yung taong...’if this is God’s will,’ lagi niyang sinasabi ‘yun.
If you believe in God, you don’t regret.” When asked how he would like to be remembered, Jamalul Kiram III’s answer was simple: “As a generous leader...[I am] the sultan of Sulu.” — BM, GMA News
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