Political Tidbits is the prestigious column of Belinda Olivares-Cunanan that ran for 25 continuous years in the op-ed page of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, the newspaper that she helped put up with its multi-awarded founder, the legendary Eugenia Duran-Apostol, in December 1985, just two months before the EDSA Revolution.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Sabah endangers 12-0 senatorial prediction of LP, as deaths continue to mount there, and frail Sultan Kiram bags populace’s sympathy vs. arrogance and insensitivity of P-Noy. With his three letters ignored, the Sultanate of Sulu, largest of dozen kingdoms in Mindanao, must have craved for ‘pansin.’ Why Sabah issue became dormant after initial London talks in 1963.

At this moment LP Coalition leaders are knocking their heads to see how they can stem the tide against the administration over the gigantic fiasco of Sabah in this election year.  Administration apologists are frantically arguing that it was Sultan Jamalul Kiram III of Sulu who defied President Aquino’s order for his men to get out of Sabah and return home.

But as deaths mount in Sabah and media have labelled it an "uprising," few would still debate whether Kiram did the wrong or the right thing in launching an armed expedition to Sabah, only 18 miles from Sulu. All they'd remember is that this frail diabetic Muslim Filipino undergoing regular dialysis had the guts to reclaim what’s his people's own, defying a President more worried about keeping the friendship of a neighbor-country than to listen to his constituents' hopes and dreams.  


What will dominate hearts of many voters is sympathy for their Muslim compatriots who fought and lost their lives to reclaim the territory of their forefathers, and realization, rightly or wrongly, that their country’s leader did not lift a finger to help them. In fact, as UNA senatorial candidate Mitos Magsaysay commented, P-Noy preferred to campaign for Team Pinoy in Pampanga when the wiser thing to do was to stay put in the Palace and monitor what was happening in Sabah.

In this election season the LP Coalition is certain to take a beating over Sabah, especially from Muslim populations in Mindanao and around the country.  Couple this with the raid earlier of the DSWD’s Davao Regional Office by victims of typhoon Pablo seeking to alleviate their hunger by looting relief goods there, and it’s easy to see that the going would be rough for the LP candidates. The 12-0 senatorial landslide LP is predicting is now a decided myth.


President Aquino, addressing the Sultan over TV (hindi pa personal) referred to Kiram’s first letter of appeal for help in his Sabah claim that he had sent to the Palace in the early weeks. P-Noy said it got lost in the “bureaucratic maze”---no apology, just a straightforward declaration. But then, as columnist Solita Monsod wrote, there appears to be a second letter last October 2012 to Malacanang, but again it went unanswered and ignored.

But sources indicate there was actually a third letter which also went unanswered---this hurt the Sultan awfully.


After all, it’s good to realize that the Sultanate of Sulu is the most prominent of the various sultanates in Mindanao that date back to many centuries ago, ahead of the arrival of the Spaniards. Magindanao has at least three sultanates, namely Cotabato, Kabuntalan and Buwayan. Maranao has four major sultanates and 15 associated royal groups, while there are four Confederations of Lanao.  But the Sultanate of Sulu is the most sikat.

Thus, from all indications, when the Sultan gave the go-signal for the incursion of 300 men into Sabah, he was more than anything asking for attention. Now because of the administration's mishandling of the crisis, it  has hogged headlines for nearly a month already here and in the international press. 

It's a black-eye not just for P-Noy with his arrogant handling of the crisis, but also for Malaysia which is perceived as carrying out its mailed-fist International Security Act to the hilt against a small band of “neighborhood pests.” the report from KL is that the Malaysian Parliament will begin deliberations on the Sabah issue.


Pres. Diosdado Macapagal

Present-day apologists for the administration insist that Malaysia had incorporated Sabah into its national territory after an alleged referendum in 1963 showed that the residents there did not want to be part of the Philippines or the Sultanate of Sulu. But that referendum, if it truly took place, could not replace the act of the new Sultan of Sulu, Esmail Kiram, one of Jamalul's surviving heirs, who executived a deed of cession of his claim of sovereignty in favor of the Republic of the Philippines (though not its ownership).  

Sultan Esmail's act became the basis for the joint resolution filed in 1950 by three outstanding congressmen, namely, Diosdado Macapagal (later to become President), Arsenio Lacson (later to become the unforgettable mayor of Manila) and Arturo Tolentino (the legal giant and Vice President of President Marcos), urging the formal institution of the claim to North Borneo.


Vice President and Foreign Secretary
Emmanuel Pelaez
As Sen. Jovito Salonga wrote in his journals, this joint resolution in turn became the basis for the House Resolution made in “rare unanimity” in 1962, that urged the President of the Philippines to recover North Borneo, “consistent with international law and procedure.”  Salonga noted that “Acting on this unanimous resolution and having acquired all the rights and interests of the Sultanate of Sulu, the Republic of the Philippines, through President (Macapagal), filed the claim to North Borneo.”  

In January 1963, Vice President and Foreign Secretary Emmanuel Pelaez, upon orders of President Macapagal, led a distinguished delegation to London, including the Yale-trained Sen. Salonga as his adviser on international law, for what became known as the North Borneo Talks with their British counterpart.


My husband, then a lieutenant fresh from West Point, was Pelaez’s junior aide-de-camp. At that point  I still hadn’t met him, but as fate would have it, I was already involved deeply in the Sabah issue as assistant to the famed Jesuit political strategist, who achieved early renown as chaplain of President Quezon---Fr. Pacifico Ortiz, S.J., then the Regent of the Ateneo Law School. It was Fr. Ortiz who helped Pelaez prepare the necessary research on Sabah and I was involved in it. 

It was clear to us even then that in 1878 Austrian adventurer Gustav von Overbeck had concluded with the Sultan of Sulu a contract of lease, not cession, of the North Borneo territory for the consideration of Malayan $5,000. Overbeck later sold his contract rights to English merchant Alfred Dent who ran the British North Borneo Company. In 1946 this company transferred all its rights and obligations to the British Crown which---just six days after Philippine independence from the US---asserted full sovereign rights over North Borneo.


My husband recall to me later (after I joined the Pelaez political office that was formed late in mid-1963 to challenge Senate President Ferdinand Marcos for the right to be NP standard-bearer vs. re-electionist President Macapagal in 1965), that the North Borneo talks were held amidst the bitterest winter in the UK in 100 years. 

But more than the severe cold, the British didn’t seem to know how to treat this first-time protest from the RP government of Britain's rule and administration of North Borneo. Almost as a knee-jerk response to the Borneo talks in London, the British chose to bow out of Asia by forming the Federation of Malaysia in September of 1963, to which it assigned rule of North Borneo. 

Soon afterwards, however, Macapagal and Pelaez came to political blows over the issue of the former’s having “borrowed” the honor of the latter in the Stonehill issue, as Pelaez had claimed. This provoked him to resign as Foreign Secretary and he concentrated on his political campaign vs. Marcos.

Since then the Sabah issue, to quote P-Noy, has lain “dormant” in the international and local scene for decades (except for a brief attempt at invasion in 1968 in the Marcos era)---until the Sultan of Sulu sent his armed followers in kumpits cutting across the Sulu Sea to Sabah last week.

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