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.|
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|
|A sultanate spokesman at a press conference during last year’s Sabah crisis|
|The current flag of Sabah (as a province of Malaysia)|
|Philippine rebels from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (ahem, MILF)|
|The “world’s poorest sultan”|
|Command headquarters of the United Federated States of Bangsamoro Republik in Zamboanga in September|
|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.]