The question of who owns the oil-rich Sabah state resurfaced with the recent deportation of its Filipino residents.
In February 2013, more than 200 men snuck into the Malaysian state of Sabah and laid siege to a village. They had travelled a few hundred kilometres from the island of Tawi-Tawi in neighbouring Philippines using boats.
Many of them wore sarongs and slippers - elderly and malnourished as the then Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein described the group. But some of them were armed with rifles and determined to fight for what turned out to be a lost cause.
The militants belonged to the Royal Sulu Army, which aimed to return the rule of the Sultan of Sulu. Up until the 19th century, the small Muslim kingdom of Sulu included Sabah province along with some islands that are now part of the Philippines.
Sabah, one of 13 Malaysian states, is located on Borneo Island, the largest in Asia. It is the only island in the world that is carved between three countries - Brunei, Indonesia and Malaysia.
The Philippines says Sabah is a disputed region and the heirs to the sultanate claim that they never agreed to joining Malaysia.
In response to the 2013 siege, the Malysian government reacted swiftly and with force to put down what it saw as an occupation. It sent hundreds of police and military personnel backed by helicopters and jets. The standoff, which continued for a month, resulted in the death of 68 people including 56 Sulu militants.
Except for that bloody episode, the tussle over Sabah has largely remained a game of diplomatic draughts. Malaysia says parting ways with its largest oil-producing region is out of the question.
The two neighbours recently resumed bickering over Sabah’s status, however, after the US embassy in Manila sent a tweet in July describing Sabah as a part of Malaysia.
The Twitter escalation
Hundreds of thousands of Filipinos, many of them Muslim, live in Sabah without proper papers legitimising their residency.
Manila has so far refused to open up a consulate there, as it could help legitimise Kuala Lumpur’s claim over the region.
Nevertheless, the close proximity of different islands in control of the two countries mean that trade and travel goes on uninterrupted.
Extended families live across the maritime border. Dried fish is exported from one place, rice from another, people travel in boats and the two Navies look the other way.
“Every time Malaysia deports hundreds, if not thousands, of Filipinos from Sabah, the flames are fanned,” says Piya Raj Sukhani, a research analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).
“Following the recent deportation of around 5,000 Filipinos from Sabah due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the US Embassy in Manila announced a donation of hygiene kits for the repatriated Filipinos, and Sabah was referred to as part of Malaysia,” she tells TRT World.
That perhaps benignly intended tweet reignited the decades-old dispute.
“Sabah is not part of Malaysia,” Teodoro Locsin Jr, the top Philippines diplomat, fired back.
Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines. https://t.co/dWZs1gsndE— Teddy Locsin Jr. (@teddyboylocsin) July 27, 2020
A few days later, Locsin said he had reactivated his ministry’s North Borneo Bureau, which deals with Manila’s claim over Sabah - previously known as North Borneo. This made matters worse as tensions were already high over a proposal to include Sabah as part of a map on passports from the Philippines.
Besides historic claims, geopolitics might also be playing a part in increasing Fillipino anxiety. Last year, Malaysia requested that the UN extend its continental shelf beyond the mandated 200 nautical miles off Sabah.
Countries in the region, such as Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam, Taiwan and China, have overlapping maritime boundary claims. The issue is heightened by Beijing’s growing influence in the South China Sea, which all these countries share.
A political question
The Sabah dispute goes back to 1878 when the Sultan of Sulu gave administrative control of the territory, which also included islands such as Mindanao in the Philippines, to the British North Borneo Company in return for an annual payment.
Whether the sultan had ceded control with sovereignty attached or just leased the territory for a limited time period, remains a contentious issue.
“However, neither the heirs to the sultanate nor the newly established Philippine Republic were consulted when administration of Sabah was transferred from the British North Borneo Company to the British Crown in 1946,” writes Lucio Blanco Pitlo III, a research fellow at the Asia-Pacific Pathways to Progress Foundation.
That was significant because the British government handed over North Borneo to the Federation of Malaysia in 1963. Kuala Lumpur says it hasn’t forcibly occupied the territory as people in Sabah decided to become part of Malaysia in a referendum. Manila disputes that.
While the Philippines never gave up its claim over the region, for decades it has not actively pursued it either. For instance, Manila has not formally recognised the heirs of the Sulu sultanate who have lived in the Philippines for the last three decades.
When Sulu fighters attacked in 2013, the then Philippines President Benigno Aquino had called on them to stand down and return.
But there’s also the issue of the payments. Malaysia had agreed to pay the heirs of the sultanate a sum of 5,300 ringgit ($1,276) every year. The embassy in Manila had dutifully written a cheque to the sultan every year until 2013.
The heirs cite those payments to solidify their claim, insisting that it was a rental or lease payment that they received, which means they have sovereignty over the region. But Malaysia says it is ‘cession money’ and not rent, as the British had purchased North Borneo from the then Sulu Sultan.
For all the rhetoric and statements, it is unlikely that the two countries will draw in international arbitrators such as the United Nations to resolve the issue, says Sukhani.
The Filipino leaders especially can use it to their political advantage.
“Leveraging the Sabah issue alongside humanitarian concerns for the Filipinos in Sabah may be domestically strategic for politicians to galvanise the southern voters and win support,”says Sukhani.
“Courting the Muslim vote bank in Mindanao has become especially vital within internal political agendas in the lead up to the presidential elections in 2022.”