Wednesday, January 8, 2014

New Moderate Sultan of Sulu Wants Peace but Turns to Malaysia for a Deal

When Ismail Kiram II became, at age 73, the new Sultan of Sulu in October 2013, he inherited a mess.  For more than a century, since an 1851 territorial cession to the Kingdom of Spain and an 1898 one to the United States occupying force in the Philippines, his family line has been regarded by authorities as a ceremonial royal family only.  For decades, the Sultanate had been quiet about the fact that its original territory included Sabah, the northeast part of Borneo, in Malaysia, even though it wished the Philippine government would some day press Malaysia over its never-settled claim on the province.

Future sultan Ismail Kiram II (left) and then-sultan Jamalul Kiram III (right) last year.
That all changed nearly a year ago, when the previous Sultan, Ismail’s even more elderly brother Jamalul Kiram III, ordered over 200 volunteer fighters from the Sultanate’s predominantly-Muslim Moro ethnic group in the southern Philippines to launch a mini-invasion of Sabah, just across the little bit of the Sulu Sea that separates the two countries (reported at the time in this blog).  It was a little bit like The Mouse That Roared, but it ended up a lot more like the Bay of Pigs, with a bush war between Malaysian forces, Sabanese villagers, and a self-styled Royal Army that led to a protracted cat-and-mouse game for months.  In the end, over 80 people were killed, and even the Moro National Liberation Front (M.N.L.F.), a Muslim rebel group from the southern Philippines, got involved at one point.  The episode was a disaster for all concerned.

Jamalul claimed that he merely wanted to goad Manila into pressing its legitimate claim on Sabah, its legitimacy underpinned, he felt, by the Sultanate’s precolonial ownership of it.  After all, the Sultanate never regarded the 1851 treaty with Spain as a cession, and when Spain sold Sabah to the United Kingdom in 1885 the Suluan position was that it wasn’t Spain’s to sell.  Ditto when the British allowed its protectorate of North Borneo, as Sabah was then called, to become part of the new republic of Malaysia in 1963.  Nor did the U.S. Congress ever ratify the 1898 cession of Sulu territories within the Philippines.  So in the Sultanate of Sulu’s eyes, it is still an independent state straddling the border of two illegal occupiers.  Jamalul was willing to set aside the sovereignty issue so long as the original territories of what he was now carefully calling the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo (Sulu is a small but strategic group of southern Philippine islands) were united under one flag, with him as a symbolic monarch.

Sultanate of Sulu fighters in the Philippines in 1933
By one measure, Jamalul wasn’t even in charge.  He had much earlier, in 2001, handed the reins of power to his younger brother, Ismail, making him regent, while he himself moved to Manila to undergo kidney dialysis.  In fact, Jamalul commanded the whole invasion of Sabah from his sickbed in a Muslim slum in Manila, telling reporters he was “the poorest sultan in the world.”  Through all of that, Ismail, though officially the political leader of the little monarchy, was apparently cut out of the loop.

A sultanate spokesman at a press conference during last year’s Sabah crisis
After Jamalul died in October, Ismail took over.  He quickly forswore violence and moved to reassure the Philippine government—which had just seen its decades of precarious cordiality with its neighbor Malaysia now dashed into pieces by a nutcase—that he had no desire to use anything but negotiations to advance any agenda to reunite Sabah with the Sulu Islands.

The current flag of Sabah (as a province of Malaysia)
The new Sultan’s shift to a more moderate position was welcome news to nearly everyone except the most hardened Moro nationalists.  But now it is appearing that it is not as if Sultan Ismail is, you know, actually reasonable or anything.  He has now decided that he won’t talk to the Christian-dominated government in Manila about this.  The question of who rules Sabah is a problem to be hashed out Muslim to Muslim, he feels.  So this past week the Sultanate’s representatives and legal counsel approached the Malaysian government and made a proposal.  They want to distinguish between sovereignty over Sabah—which they are willing to concede Malaysia holds—and the underlying proprietary ownership of the territory, which they claim the Sultan of Sulu still holds.  The sultan’s new offer to the government in Kuala Lumpur is that if they will acknowledge that Malaysian sovereignty over Sabah derives from the Sultan of Sulu’s original sovereignty and that it is still part of the Sultanate, then, according to this deal, the Sultan “will not withdraw Sabah from the Federation of Malaysia.”

Philippine rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (ahem, MILF)
The Sultan calls it a “win–win solution,” but Malaysians can be forgiven for hearing it more as a threat.  No response yet from Kuala Lumpur.  But the fact that the Sultanate feels that it can play the card of a threat to unilaterally “withdraw” a territory out of Malaysia suggests that belligerency might be creeping back into the Sultanate’s official policy.

The “world’s poorest sultan”
Will Malaysia merely shrug off such negotiating moves as unworthy of notice?  After all, its military, which has never faced serious threats since independence, took an embarrassingly long time finishing off an invasion by a couple hundred amateurs, so perhaps it cannot afford to adopt such a posture of invincibility.  Will the Philippine government act to constrain or warn the new Sultan?  Perhaps they don’t think they need to quite yet, since so far the new Sultan is all talk.  But, more importantly, is the idea of a sovereign Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo something that other Moro militants in the vast, civil-war-torn jungles of Mindanao and other parts of the southern Philippines might rally around?  Especially now that their transition to an enlarged autonomous zone seems a bit shaky and still unable to satisfy the hardline rebels in the bush?  That seems a lot less outlandish after (as reported on at the time in this blog) the M.N.L.F. declared, in Sulu in August, an independent United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik, whose territory potentially includes not just Sabah but all of Malaysia’s territories on Borneo, and then followed it up by briefly taking over Zamboanga City, the Philippines’ sixth-largest metropolitan area.

Command headquarters of the United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik in Zamboanga in September
Time will tell.  Ismail Kiram II is not a hothead, but he’s not burying the hatchet just yet.  And he may have more allies than even his crazy older brother had counted on.

Sultan Ismail says he doesn’t want a resumption of last year’s battles for Sabah—for now.

[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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