Sabah, Ramos and Arroyo

Marites Dañguilan Vitug

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Past presidents--Ramos and Arroyo—used contrasting approaches to deal with the Kirams. But it is from Ramos that President Aquino can learn lessons.

Marites Dañguilan VitugWhy were the Kirams, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, quiet during the recent past administrations? Why did we not hear from them? 

They were very much in the radar screen of two presidents—Fidel V. Ramos and Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo—who used contrasting approaches to deal with them. The one common thing was: communication lines were open to the Palace and the Kirams did not need to write letters to the presidents. 

Both leaders acknowledged that the heirs had a legitimate cause and that they were a group to reckon with even if the sultanate was dead and even if the heirs were living off past glory. After all, it remains a historical fact that they once ruled over a proud and powerful territory. 

But the big difference was: Ramos took the long view while Arroyo chose the quick and easy route. Ramos was not keen on settling the proprietary claim of the Kirams in isolation. He wanted a strategic program that would boost the economy of Mindanao and let the island prosper “to make the demands of the heirs as well as those of the Muslim rebels irrelevant,” Jose Almonte, Ramos’s national security adviser, told me.

But let’s begin first with Arroyo’s short-term solution which achieved instant results: she co-opted them. She “feted” some of the heirs in Malacañang in 2002 and Jamalul III “was hailed as Sultan of Sulu,” wrote Amina Rasul, daughter of one of the heirs. In her detailed account, Rasul says that Arroyo gave the letter of Jamalul to Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir “asking for an adjustment of the rentals.” 

Years later, in 2007, Jamalul ran as senator under Arroyo’s Team Unity but lost. It was Norberto Gonzales, national security adviser, who pushed for Jamalul’s inclusion in the Senate ticket of the administration to have Muslim representation and to keep the issue of the heirs’ proprietary claim to Sabah in the political agenda. 

Despite the defeat, the dissatisfaction of the Kirams was kept under the lid.

Thawing of relations

During the Ramos presidency, something historic happened. It was during his time that decades of icy relations between Malaysia and the Philippines thawed. He was the first Philippine president to make a state visit to Malaysia. He saw the benefits of improving economic ties with a neighbor which would include resolving the Sabah problem. 

Jose Apolinario Lozada, then Ramos’s appointments secretary, witnessed the first-ever meeting between his boss and Mahathir in Kuala Lumpur in January 1993. Shaking Mahathir’s hands, Ramos’s first words were, “Let us put all our problems in the backburner, including Sabah.”

Ramos then proposed that Sabah (and Sarawak) be made part of an economic growth polygon composed of Mindanao, Brunei, and the eastern parts of Indonesia. This came to be known as the East Asean Growth Area or Eaga which encouraged cross-border trade and tourism. Moreover, it changed mindsets in the Philippines and made people look at Mindanao as a “front door” to a new economic corridor rather than a smuggling and escape route.

During the visit, Ramos and Mahathir had a one-on-one meeting which lasted at least two hours. Ramos emerged from the meeting with notes scribbled on an onion skin paper. His key officials then learned that the two leaders talked about Sabah, among other things.

Ramos proposed that Malaysia settle the claim of the heirs either through land (Sabah has acres of public land leased to plantations) or cash to which Mahathir appeared amenable. He apparently asked for one condition: that Malaysia would speak only to one representative of the heirs.     

Uniting the heirs 

Ramos wasted no time and, upon his return to Manila, assigned Lozada to talk to the heirs. 

“We had to find out who the legitimate heirs were,” Lozada recalls. They relied on historical documents and gathered the heirs. “We talked to all of them and asked them to decide who should represent them. They were cooperative. Their concern was, they would not be able to taste the fruits of their land until their dying days,” Lozada, a former ambassador, says.

The heirs were billeted in the Philippine Village Hotel for easy coordination. All the while, the Malaysian embassy in Manila was looped in on these discussions.

During the talks, the idea of a Sabah-Sulu corporation was proposed. This corporation would invite investors from Malaysia and the Philippines to engage in business in Eaga. While it would be run by professional managers for the first 5 years, the plan was to train the heirs so that they can eventually take over. 

Lozada, however, was unable to unite the heirs. He says, “The number of heirs increased as work on the corporation progressed. And we were overtaken by events.”

But Eaga took off—only to be slowed down by the Asian financial crisis in 1997.

Throughout the Ramos administration, a former Cabinet official told me, “the heirs were never ignored. FVR had a sense of who would create potential trouble.” 

Recognition, money

Looking at the recent past, it is clear that the Sabah “intrusion” was a desperate move borne out of a lack of recognition by the Aquino government of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu. This attention to their cause would have led them to re-negotiate for higher payments from Malaysia. 

Today, Malaysia pays the equivalent of about P75,000 per year. On their own, the heirs tried to get a better deal, as narrated by Amina Rasul in her column in BusinessWorld: US$1 million in 1996 (as written in a letter to Mahathir) and $855 million in 2001 (also in a letter to Mahathir as delivered by Arroyo). “In 2010, the Sulu provincial board passed a resolution supporting the demand of the heirs to increase the yearly payment to at least $500 million,” Rasul wrote.

But the problem remains: the heirs remain divided to this day. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.