Deep dive into Sulu

Deep dive into Sulu

Deep dive into Sulu

A security force at Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu in a sweeping and mopping operation to flush out the Sulu gunmen.  FILE PHOTO: The Star/Asia News Network

The other day, my colleague Tan Yi Liang stumped me with several questions about the Sulu Sultanate matter.

His interest was triggered when Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman issued a statement saying that the US$15 billion“cession money” demand by the United Tausug Citizens (UTC) organization was baseless.


I wrote about this in my last column but Yi Liang’s questions revealed that I might have taken for granted that information on Sulu is generally known to non-Sabahans.


READ: Tracking royal bloodlines

I call Sulu, which is located in the southern Philippines, a twin of my home state Sabah. Sabah is connected to Sulu by geography, people, history, geopolitics — and that alleged US$15 billion arbitration claim.

But not everyone knows the background and consequences of this ongoing issue, so I asked the always curious Yi Liang to send me questions on the matter; I’m answering them here in the hopes it will help inform readers too.

1. Who comprises the UTC?

The answer to this depends on who you ask in the Philippines and Malaysia.

Filipino families with blood ties to the eight original heirs to whom convicted rogue arbitrator Gonzalo Stampa awarded US$14.9 billion in March 2020 would tell you that the man who leads UTC does not have any blood ties to Sultan Sharif ul- Hashim, who founded the Sulu Sultanate in 1405.


If you ask the UTC leader, who calls himself Sultan Sharif Jubair B. Sharif Hashim, his hitherto unknown organization represents 85,000 Tausug people of the Sulu Sultanate. Jubair, who was born on Jolo Island in the Philippines, is working on creating a “Sultanate of Sulu” passport and on “restoring the Kingdom Sultanate of Sulu”, he told me.

If you ask Azalina and Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor who has also commented on the matter, the UTC is a frivolous group – “This represents the latest frivolous and baseless attempt by a group to claim sovereignty over Malaysian territory and to extort unfounded payments from Malaysia,” Azalina said in her March 9 statement.

2. Have Malaysian politicians’ statements inadvertently given weight to the UTC’s claims, and how could either side capitalize on this moving forward?

Yes, it has given weight to the claims. A side with financial backing could capitalize on the UTC claim by taking legal action against Malaysia in other parts of the world. I’m told the United States, the last colonial master of the Philippines, will be Malaysia’s next legal battleground after Spain, France, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.

3. Is the UTC backed by any branch/faction of the Sulu royal family laying claim to the Sulu Sultanate?

This question is tricky as it assumes that there is a clear-cut Sulu royal family. The last Sultan of Sulu recognised by the Philippine government through president Ferdinand Marcos was Sultan Mohammed Mahakuttah Kiram, who reigned from 1974 to 1986.

READ: No, the Sulu saga hasn’t ended

But in my deep dive into the Sulu Sultanate family tree, the genealogy becomes fuzzy after Jamalul Kiram II died in 1936. The Kirams and other royal families fought among themselves over who would be the next sultan. Nowadays, there are many, many pretenders to the throne and since 2000, I have met at least a handful of them.

None of the Sulu Sultanate families with a drop of Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim’s blood in their veins will want anything to do with someone they say is not in their ancestor’s family tree.

4. Could there be a hidden hand backing the UTC that could benefit from what it is doing?

There certainly could be because there is a possibility of gaining billions of dollars in the settlement (which, to quote Azalina, constitutes about 16% of Malaysia’s national budget).

5. How much social and political influence do the different factions/branches of the Sulu royal family wield today, especially in the aftermath of the 2013 Sabah incursion?

This can be answered by looking at who wields power in Sulu province, which includes Jolo Island. I’ve been visiting Sulu since 2000, when 21 hostages, including 10 foreigners, were abducted from Malaysia’s Sipadan Island and held on Jolo. At that time, Sulu’s governor was Abdusakur Tan, who remains in the position today. The power base in Sulu province, one of the former territories in the Sulu Sultanate, has shifted from the royal family to the powerful family of Governor Abdusakur.

6. Of all the different factions and branches, which has the best claim to the throne?

No comment. I don’t want to be dragged into a Sulu family feud as I have friends on both sides. Yi Liang, if you want a private answer, buy me coffee.

7. What would it take to revive the Sulu Sultanate?

It could happen with the open backing of the Philippine government. However, some claimants hope Malaysia will recognise them, either as the Sultan of Sulu or Sultan of Sabah.

8. Would a legitimate, resurrected Sulu Sultanate be useful to the interests of Malaysia or the Philippines? If so, how?

This is a tough question from a canny journalist. As it involves several spy-versus-spy geopolitical scenarios, I’ll skip it. I’ll only answer over a cup of acidic (and expensive) single-origin coffee.

9. Would there be any reason for either Manila or Putrajaya to legitimize any of the claims to the throne?


10. Could a superpower such as China benefit from covertly backing claims that could give it a reason to have a permanent military presence stationed off the southern Philippines?

This question actually answers itself. You could also replace “China” in the question with “United States”.

11. What could a faction or branch of the Sulu royal family do to attract the interest of China?

China is close to one of the branches of the Sulu families that is listed on the Sulu Sultanate’s genealogy written on a monument at a Sulu Sultan’s tomb in Qingdao, China.

China and the Sulu Sultanate have historical links, Shari Jeffri, a private researcher of North Borneo/Sabah history, told me, and it goes back as the 14th century, during the Yuan dynasty.

12. Is there any link between branches of the Sulu royal family and crossborder crimes such as smuggling or the kidnapping business, and if so, what is the link?

No comment. This is a complex question which requires a complex answer.

Yi Liang, like the excellent journalist he is, has stumped me with questions I can only answer over a cup of acidic coffee.

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Kahawa (Tausug for “coffee”), anyone?

TAGS: Malaysia, Philippines, Politics, royals, Sulu

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