Just sharing some recent reads:

  • Sabah, Merdeka, and Aquino” by Glenda M. Gloria. I actually bought a copy of Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao, which talks at length about Jabidah and its repercussions, so many years ago, but never finished it. I have to go find it and read it again.

Sabah has been home to thousands of Muslims who once fought for independence under the Marcos dictatorship. It was their refuge when the military continued to pummel them with bombs and bullets in Mindanao. Sabah was always part of their real — and imagined — community. Before colonizers carved out superficial boundaries in that part of the world, the Muslims of Sabah, Tawi-Tawi and Sulu were one community that freely traded goods with each other, paid unhampered visits to one another, and spoke the same language. The imperious Sultanate of Sulu reigned over these islands.

Thus while Manila has consistently put the Sabah claim on the back burner, the reality is that to many Filipinos, Sabah has long been theirs. They grew up on the island, got married there, raised their kids, and put up businesses. An estimated 65,000 Filipinos carry passports as “political refugees” in Sabah. In the capital city of Kota Kinabalu, I once asked a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) why he had chosen to live there. “It’s our land. These are my brothers,” he said. They call themselves “Suluks” not Filipinos.

We can also argue all day about the merits of the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim over Sabah, but the following realities will not change:

Firstly, that despite its long history and the Philippine government’s recognition of its importance to the Moro people’s cultural identity, the Sultanate of Sulu is not a juridical entity, much less a sovereign one. It cannot maintain an army, since militias are prohibited under Philippine laws, and it cannot defy the Philippine government and press an international claim by itself.

Secondly, that Sabah is not merely a piece of private property but a territory whose people have been granted the right to self-determination. While the United Nations-sponsored commission that found that the Sabahans desired to federate with Malaysia in 1963 may have been questionable to the Philippine and Indonesian governments then, the fact remains that Sabah has chosen to be part of the Malaya-Singapore-Sarawak federation and that the people of Sabah see themselves today either as Sabahans or Malaysians and not as Filipinos or Sulu subjects.

Thirdly, that historical titles usually mean next to nothing in international law– otherwise, Spain and Portugal should own the world– and that, finally, there is a clear distinction between sovereignty and ownership: the former trumps the latter. And while the Philippines has legislated its sovereignty over Sabah, Malaysia exercises actual sovereignty.

However, despite the inherent weakness of its claim to Sabah, domestic considerations make it extremely difficult, if not in fact impossible, for the Philippines to drop the claim.

“Democracy works only when the people understand the limitations of democracy. When people think only of the freedoms of democracy and know nothing of the implied responsibilities, democracy will not bring the goodness that it promises. Instead it will result only in instability and instability will not permit development to take place and the people to enjoy the benefits of freedom and the rights that democracy promises. No sooner is a Government elected when the losers would hold demonstrations and general strikes accusing the Government of malpractices.”

Enlightening reads. And I hope the Sabah problem gets resolved without any more bloodshed.

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