Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Sulu’s Return: The “World’s Poorest Sultan” Invades Sabah, Threatens Southeast Asia’s Fragile Geopolitical Balance

The Republic of the Philippines, which just last year brought its civil war with southern Muslims closer to an end with an agreement for a new autonomous region, has a new headache to complicate its relationship to the Moro minority.  Details emerged slowly last month as 200 or so Filipino paramilitaries made a quiet amphibious landing on the shores of the neighboring Malaysian state of Sabah.  The porous marine border between far-eastern Malaysia and the far-southwestern Philippines has long been a conduit for contraband arms, linking the Moro separatist insurgency on Mindanao to other Muslim minority struggles such as that of southern Thailand’s Malays, as well as fundamentalist terrorists in Indonesia.  One entity plying these waters is the Abu Sayyaf Group (A.S.G.), a Moro-aligned militia which is considered an arm of al-Qaeda.  But these new intruders on the beaches of Sabah turned out to be the self-proclaimed Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu and were claiming Sabah for their monarch.  An ensuing standoff with Malaysian troops became violent on March 1st.  An unknown number have died, and the governments in Kuala Lumpur and Manila are trying to contain the diplomatic fallout.

Early Sulu Sultanate rebels (during American rule?), with an early version of the royal flag
Sabah, the northeastern quadrant of Borneo (whose south is Indonesian and whose north is Malaysian) once belonged to the Sultan of Sulu, at the time the most powerful ruler in the Philippines.  In 1851, as the Spanish Empire was encroaching in the region, Jamalul Alam, Sultan of Sulu, signed a treaty with Spain, which Madrid interpreted as a cession but which the sultanate regarded as an alliance between equals that preserved the sultan’s sovereignty over the small Sulu archipelago, Sabah, the Philippine islands of Palawan and Basilan, and part of the large island of Mindanao.  When Spain turned Sabah over to the United Kingdom in 1885, it was without the sultan’s approval.  Nor was he consulted when his other territories, the de facto Philippine ones, were stripped from Spanish control at the start of the Spanish-American War in 1898, in a local independence struggle that quickly became superseded by the Philippines’ new status as a protectorate of the United States.  (A Republic of Zamboanga existed very briefly on Mindanao’s west coast during the war).  The sultan acknowledged U.S. rule in 1915 and reluctantly agreed to allow his territory to be incorporated into the U.S.’s newly declared commonwealth of the Philippines, but the details of that agreement did not deal with the tricky matter of Sabah, now being run as a British colony.  The U.S. was not interested in pressing a claim against the British, but the independent Philippine government which took power in 1949 was, and claimed it owned Sabah as well.

Proposed territories of a future Bangsa Moro Republic
In fact, one could argue that the self-determination movement among the southern Philippines’ Muslim began in Sulu.  During Sabah’s brief independence (1957-1963), between the end of British rule and incorporation into an independent Malaysia, the Philippine president, Diosdado Macapagal, who had family ties to Sulu, invoked the Sultanate of Sulu so often in asserting his territorial claims on Sabah that he was even suspected of wishing himself to become the new sultan.  (Though a Roman Catholic from the north of the country, near Manila, Macapagal was a descendant of a prince of Tondo, a northern-Philippine monarchy which was once a vassal state of the Kingdom of Brunei, whose lands included Sabah as well.)  A declaration of autonomy in the Sulu islands was quashed in 1961, and soon afterward the Moro people began demanding a separate state consisting of the island of Mindanao and the smaller islands formerly under the Sulu sultanate’s rule.  This helped spark a bloody Muslim-vs.-Catholic civil war in the south through the 1970s and ’80s, with demands for a Bangsa Moro Republic (B.M.R.).  (The Moro are not one ethnic group.  The name derives from the early Spanish traders who considered all Muslims “Moors.”  Today the term covers a variety of groups speaking different languages, the Philippines being one of the more ethnolinguistically diverse areas in the world.)

Flag of the Moro National Liberation Front (M.N.L.F.)
Macapagal’s successor, Ferdinand Marcos, coveted Sabah as well.  The awkwardness of a Catholic president using Muslim royal history to extend his mini-empire proved too difficult to manage: in 1968, a secret élite military unit on the northern island of Corregidor became notorious when recruits from Sulu were massacred (according to one version of events) by their Christian officers.  It turned out the men had been training for an imminent invasion of Sabah.  This did not help already bad relations between Malaysia’s left-leaning government and the right-wing Marcos dictatorship.  After Marcos’s removal in a 1986 “people power” revolution, Malaysian–Philippine relations warmed, an Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) was created, and Malaysia acted as a third-party broker in negotiations between Manila and southern insurgency groups such as the Mindanao Independence Movement (MIM), the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), and the Moro National Liberation Front (M.N.L.F.).  Surely, Malaysia partly wanted to make sure not only that an increasingly Islamized insurgency would not spill over into Borneo but that no Sulu-based territorial conflicts arose between the two nations.  However, that is what happened this February.

Jamalal Kiram III, current Sultan of Sulu
The “royal army” currently at large in Sabah is led by a younger brother of Jamalul Kiram III, an elderly invalid in a Muslim slum neighborhood of Manila who ordered the invasion and calls himself “the poorest sultan in the world” (though he is only one claimant).  Kiram’s aim at first seemed merely to goad the Philippine government into a more aggressive irredentism against Malaysia, but as Manila has disavowed any support for the invaders and scrambled to repair its relationship with Kuala Lumpur, the Sultan has begun to sound more radical.  The Sultanate of Sulu’s shadow government now includes a minister for foreign affairs, and it is suddenly calling itself the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo.

Abraham Idjirani, royal spokesman, at a recent press conference
What Moro separatists in the Philippines make of this is as yet unclear.  The M.N.L.F. first said it regarded Malaysia’s defensive actions as a war on all Moros, but then it tried to squelch rumors that M.N.L.F. fighters were on their way to Sabah to support the Sultan.  One complication will be some territorial overlap between the Sultanate and not only the M.N.L.F.’s proposed Bangsa Moro Republic but also the more moderate MILF’s planned Bangsamoro autonomous region (a subset of the desired B.M.R. territory).

The Sultanate of Sulu’s current flag
What are the chances that the Sultanate of Sulu will become an independent state?  Approximately nil.  Western governments are already worried that a more autonomous Bangsomoro will turn the Philippine–Malaysian border region into a murky no-man’s-land where al-Qaeda can flourish.  The West would never tolerate the establishment of a separate Muslim statelet that would be ripe for Islamist radicalization.  The former colonial master, the U.S., has always stood squarely with Manila against the Islamist rebels of the south.

Poster for The Sultan of Sulu, a 1902 Broadway play that mocked the monarch
But could the world’s poorest sultan throw a politically sensitive region on the boundary between the Christian and Muslim worlds into bloody turmoil?  Well, they already have.  Everyone’s trying to figure out now what this new player wants.

[You can read more about the Sultanate of Sulu, Bangsomoro, and many other separatist and new-nation movements, both famous and obscure, in my new book, a sort of encyclopedic atlas just published by Litwin Books under the title Let’s Split! A Complete Guide to Separatist Movements and Aspirant Nations, from Abkhazia to Zanzibar.  The book, which contains 46 maps and 554 flags (or, more accurately, 554 flag images), is available for order now on Amazon.  Meanwhile, please “like” the book (even if you haven’t read it yet) on Facebook and see this interview for more information on the book.]

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