Philippine claim on Sabah will undermine regional security efforts

Philippine claim on Sabah will undermine regional security efforts

The recent proposal by a Filipino government representative to amend the Philippine constitution, to include Sabah within a federal system, will likely be shunned. The potential inclusion of Sabah risks legitimising fringe political voices and unsettling Malaysia-Philippine bilateral relations.

During the Philippines’ Consultative Committee, former senator Aquilino Pimentel Jr declared the Philippines should assert its ‘claim to Sabah’ under international law. The committee was formed to review and propose amendments to the country’s 1987 constitution. It discussed switching from the current unitary political model to a 12-state federal system – with a future option of including Sabah as the 13th federal state.

Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman criticised the proposal, reiterating that Malaysia does not recognise the Philippines’ claim. Sabah is recognised under international law as part of Malaysia since it was formed in 1963.

Pimentel’s claims are unlikely to translate into government policy. Nevertheless, just by entertaining these ideas, President Rodrigo Duterte risks harming Malaysia-Philippines relations, particularly the security partnership – demonstrating vulnerabilities that could be exploited by adverse groups.

The claim

The case for Philippine ownership of Sabah relates to the Sulu Sultanate, a thalassocracy established in 1405. The Sultanate used to rule over parts of southern Philippines and Sabah, before the British acquired Sabah in 1878. The Sultanate claims that Sabah was only leased, and not ceded, to Britain, and consequently that the Sultans never relinquished sovereignty.

Britain contributes annual payments to the Sultanate, which it views as ‘cession payments’ – however the Sultans view these as ‘lease payments’. Although pursued during the reign of Ferdinand Marcos, the Sabah claim was dropped in the 1987 constitution, under the presidency of Corazon Aquino. Aquino viewed the issue as a risk to Asean unity. In 2009, Sabah was written out of the Philippine’s legal Archipelagic Baselines, maritime jurisdiction, and thought to be solved indefinitely.

However, by including the islands and territorial waters thought to belong to the Philippines through historic title, the proposed constitutional amendment restores the Sultanate’s claim.

Duterte, Sabah and federalism

Duterte has previously declared his intentions to pursue the country’s claim on Sabah. These declarations generate political support from Muslim groups in the South who believe Sabah should be included within an independent ‘Bangsamoro’ (Muslim nation) region.

Duterte, the first president from the southern region of Mindanao, has long been a proponent of federalism, which he claims will redress the balance of power between ‘Imperial Manila’ and local governments, through local courts, business regulations and taxes. This will purportedly help end the conflict in the South that has stunted rural economic growth, driven by the Moros’ (Philippine Muslims’) struggle for autonomy.

Realistically, both objectives are unlikely to be realised, and Duterte knows this – admitting recently that the country is ‘not ready for a federal system’. He is merely playing to his support base. But by doing so, Duterte bolstered the legitimacy of a sensitive political issue, giving voice to fringe groups and unsettling bilateral relations.

Historical sore point

The issue of amending the Constitution is a sensitive topic during a sensitive time, with January’s announcement that the 9 men involved in 2013’s ‘Lahad Datu incident’ will be sentenced to death.

In 2013, then heir of the Sulu Sultanate, Jamalul Kiram III, launched an armed assault on Sabah, in the name of reclaiming his ‘rightful’ territory. He sent around 200 men from the southern Philippines to occupy Kampung Tanduo in Lahad Datu, who battled Malaysian security forces for over a month. 70 gunmen and 10 Malaysian security officers died in the fighting.

Observers believe the Sultan’s actions were financially motivated, intended to pressure Malaysia into increasing its annual payment. The Philippine government was quick to issue a formal statement condemning the attack.

Role of the MNLF

The committee’s proposals resonate with members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a strong advocate of federalism. MNLF champions an independent ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ – covering Sabah, Sarawak, Mindanao, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, Basilan and Palawan. Its most famous figure is Nur Misuari, leader of a break-away MNLF faction since becoming estranged from the party leadership in 2000. Duterte has held several meetings with Misuari over creating a new legal framework for the Moro people.

The extent of MNLF’s involvement in the Sabah dispute is difficult to pinpoint. Misuari is purportedly a strong advocate of ‘reclaiming’ Sabah and was alleged to be one of the conspirators of the 2013 incursion. He has expressed his support for the Sultan, but has denied any involvement. Although, a cluster of ex-MNLF members did take part in the attack.

In 2015, a spokesperson for Misuari’s faction claimed the MNLF will peacefully pursue the historic and proprietary claim of the Sultanate of Sulu over Sabah. The plan is to petition the UN to recognise the ‘Bangsamoro Republik’ as a legal entity. However, sometime later Misuari denied reports of involvement in settling the dispute and said only the Sultanate can pursue the claim, whilst recognising the ongoing ‘peaceful and harmonious co-existence’ of the ethnic and religious groups living in Sabah.

University scholar Acram Latiph states that Malaysia’s heavy-handed response to the 2013 incident likely generated support for reclaiming Sabah among some Moros, which likely exist MNLF sympathisers.

Damage to relations

Regardless of the outcome, Duterte’s courting of the group risks harming the strong bilateral relations which Malaysia and the Philippines currently enjoy. Any unease generated between both countries could demonstrate vulnerabilities to local militant groups and compromise bilateral regional security efforts. Despite his indictments of Duterte’s words, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak understands that Duterte has to play to his base, particularly as a Mindanao-born politician who is ‘one of the people’, attuned to local political sentiment.

In the short term, nothing is likely to change. Although Duterte’s concern is to improve the livelihood of citizens in the Southern Philippines, federalism and bogus claims to Sabah will not come to anything extreme. There is the chance he could pursue this strategy if things start to go wrong on the domestic front. Exercising nostalgic and nationalistic land rights will prove a useful distraction if mounting criticism of his drugs war begins to translate into lower approval ratings.

Overall, for regional security interests, it is imperative that these latest Sabah proposals are scrapped by the administration. This will reduce the legitimacy of fringe groups, and ensure the issue is officially put to rest. Continued discord concerning the Sabah amendment will promote distrust in Duterte’s foreign policy objectives, at a crucial time when the region is tackling a pressing security crisis.


Categories: Asia Pacific, Security

About Author

Alexander Macleod

Alex is a Manchester-based Analyst specializing in Southeast Asian political and security risk. He holds a PhD in Politics and Geography from the University of Newcastle, where he examined the role that online media play in promoting and sustaining Malaysia's racialized political landscape during general elections. Alex also freelances as a social media manager for a digital marketing consultancy. He blogs at