Island of Contention: A Past Revisited
NEW YORK—The occupation almost three weeks ago of a village in Sabah, a Malaysian state on Borneo, by a large and armed following of the 74-year-old Sultan of Jolo Jamalul Kiram III, ended in a deadly confrontation when the Malaysian authorities sought to evict the group. A reported 26 people were killed, according to Malaysian authorities, including 18 of the Sultan’s men, and eight Malaysian police. The militants remain defiant and have vowed to die in support of the Sultan’s historic claim to Sabah.
The deadly incident reminds us that the past is still very much with us. The Sultanate of Jolo’s territory once encompassed that part of Borneo, and still, apparently, from the point of view of the Sultanate, does—the Sultan receives nominal payments from the Malaysian government, a throwback to an 1878 agreement between the Sultanate and Great Britain, in the days when Southeast Asia had basically been carved up by Western colonial powers, including Spain and the Netherlands in addition to Great Britain. The payments seem to constitute a prima facie case of ownership on the part of the Sultanate.
In 1963, British control over Sabah ended when this was ceded to Malaysia, an independent state since 1957. The Macapagal administration protested, saying that Sabah had always been a part of the Sultanate of Jolo, and thus, was an integral part of the territory of the Republic of the Philippines. When Marcos succeeded Macapagal, he continued the suit. In addition, to strengthen the country’s case, he and his military planned a secret, small-scale insurgency on the island.
Towards that end, able-bodied Moros from Mindanao were recruited by the Armed Forces of the Philippines and brought over to Corregidor for training. However, when the recruits learned why they were being trained, they refused the mission, not wanting to fight fellow Muslims. They decided to quit and return to southern Mindanao. Instead, on March 18, 1968, they were taken to a remote location on Corregidor and killed. One managed to escape to the mainland and there revealed the government’s machinations, which outraged the Muslim communities and provoked a diplomatic firestorm with Malaysia, which recalled its ambassador. The Jabidah Massacre, as it came to be known, radicalized Moro activists, among them Nur Misuari, then an academic at the University of the Philippines who went on to be one of the founders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF). When President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in 1972, the MNLF engaged the Philippine military in a bloody and brutal campaign that turned southern Mindanao into a charnel house for soldiers, guerrillas, and civilians in the 1970s, at the height of martial law.
The Mindanao wars provided Malaysia an opportunity to pay back Marcos in his own coin, by providing training and a base in Malaysia for the Muslim insurgents, and to serve as a conduit for arms to the rebels provided by such countries as Libya.
There is no small measure of irony that today Malaysia, where peace talks between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) and the Philippine government have been held, now finds itself at deadly odds with its brother Muslims whom it once supported. Surely it cannot be mere coincidence that these armed claimants are said to be sympathizers, if not members, of the MNLF, sidelined by the peace deal between the Aquino government and the MILF.
This convoluted history of Sabah also involves Jose Rizal, albeit tangentially. In 1891 Rizal had left Europe for good, planning on returning to his homeland but living for a brief period in the Crown Colony of Hong Kong, to consider the political situation in Manila. His family joined him there in a happy albeit short-lived reunion. Rizal contemplated the possibility of establishing a Filipino colony on Borneo, made up mostly of the townspeople of Calamba, including of course his family. Earlier, there had been a dispute between the Dominicans who controlled vast tracts of land in and around Calamba, and many tenant farmers and individuals who had cleared land. The townspeople claimed the Dominicans had extended the boundaries of their hacienda to include lands that the friars otherwise had no legal right to, and for which therefore no rents needed to be paid. The underlying charge was clear, if not spelled out: the friars were guilty of land-grabbing.
The dispute, not surprisingly, was viewed by Governor-General Valeriano Weyler as an incipient revolt that needed to be put down. He came down hard on the townspeople and in favor of the friars. He sent in soldiers to enforce the order to vacate. In addition, Paciano Rizal and several kinsmen were deported to Mindoro. This history is revisited in the tale of Kabesang Tales, a significant character in Rizal’s second novel, El Filibusterismo.
Mindful of the less than favorable conditions that would greet him on his return home, Rizal visited Borneo, to see for himself what conditions there were like. He must have liked what he saw, as he made plans for the repatriation of his fellow Filipinos, getting in touch with the British colonial authorities, who in principle agreed to a settlement on 5,000 acres of land, rent-free for three years. Rizal also wrote to Weyler’s successor, Governor General Despujol, to seek his approval. As expected, Despujol nixed the idea; too, the Spanish would have been suspicious of British motives in harboring a potentially subversive force. If the plans had gone through, Rizal would essentially have been the datu of a rather large barangay—in effect, this voyage of Calamba residents would have reprised the voyages of resettlement undertaken in the archipelago centuries earlier by Southeast Asian clans, in their outriggered balanghai.
Copyright L.H. Francia 2013