The heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu on Thursday asked the Philippine government to revive the Office of the North Borneo Affairs (ONBA) which has long been dormant in the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA).
This, they say, would re-start rolling the country’s efforts to reclaim the island of Sabah, which has been part of the Malaysian federation of states since its formation in 1963.
The call came as an offshoot to Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin’s support to the sultanate’s claim to Sabah, residence to more than 600,000 Tausug Filipinos, when he censured Malaysia and the United States for their mistaken views on the island and its people.
“Secretary Locsin made the right calls against the US and Malaysia in very recent developments. They bolstered the sultanate’s effort to reclaim Sabah because the Philippine government officially recognizes its ownership of the island,” the sultanate’s Prime Minister or Wazir Amroussi Rasul stated.
Rasul was speaking on behalf of Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram, chief of the Royal House of Sulu.
Locsin, Rasul said, asserted the ancestral rights of the Sulu people when he chastised Malaysian Ambassador Norman Muhamad who branded returning Filipinos from North Borneo amid the pandemic as “expatriates.”
“When this COVID-19 was starting and Zamboanga was getting quite a lot of infections from Filipinos leaving Sabah to return to Zamboanga, I told the ambassador, ‘Don’t you dare call them repatriates,’” Locsin said. “‘You just say you’re moving Filipinos from one place to the other. Don’t you dare call them that’ and he has not.”
Locsin also lambasted the US Embassy in the Philippines for calling Sabah as part of Malaysia.
“Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines,” an irate Locsin tweeted.
“The people of Sulu are proud of their heritage and we sincerely thank H.E. Locsin for helping assert our rights,” a statement from the sultanate said. “We hope the government of Malaysia understands the plight of the thousands of underprivileged and indigenous families of Sulu who barely survive in Sabah during this pandemic.”
Rasul said Locsin’s actions gave the Sultanate an opportunity to raise the Sabah issue before President Rodrigo Duterte, who promised to help the people of Sulu reclaim the island from Malaysia when he campaigned for the presidency in 2016.
“But the DFA must look at the Sabah records,” Rasul reiterated. “It is with the Foreign Affairs, kept by then Vice President and concurrent Foreign Affairs Secretary Emmanuel Pelaez.”
Pelaez was vice president to President Diosdado Macapagal, who raised the Sabah issue in 1962, a year before the Malaysian Federation was formed when Malaysia united with Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak.
Sarawak is the largest of the 13 federated states.
Singapore, however, was kicked out of the federation the following year.
The Philippine claim to Sabah, however, was not made that late. The country has long been seeking to reclaim the island as early as 1950 when then Congressman Macapagal filed a resolution for its claim with fellow lawmakers Arturo Tolentino, Arsenio Lacson and Hadji Gulamu Rasul — grandfather of the present Wazir Amroussi Rasul.
Macapagal was consistent in his desire to reclaim Sabah when he revived the effort in 1962. But it strained the country’s relations with Malaysia.
The then President Macapagal also received the sovereign rights passed by the Sultanate of Sulu to the Philippine government in 1962.
The claim stayed alive even after Macapagal as the late President Ferdinand Marcos kept the ONBA operations going. The Philippines, however, fell into a long political turmoil that resulted in Marcos’ ouster in 1986. The Sabah claim also became dormant during that stretch.
After Marcos’ ouster, Cory Aquino’s vice president, Salvador Laurel — who like Pelaez was also the VP and the DFA secretary — questioned the referendum which made Sabah officially part of Malaysia. It revived the Sultanate of Sulu’s hopes to reclaim the island.
Not much was heard from the government after that as relations with Malaysia were in their healthiest.
Duterte, however, vowed to revive the Sabah issue before he was elected to Malacañang.
“We are counting on his promise,” Rasul said. “He made Sabah part of his campaign vows. We’re counting on his words.”
The Daily Tribune sought the DFA’s stand on the revival of the ONBA. It has, however, yet to reply on the issue.