Connect with us
Click me!


‘An anthology on the Philippine claim to North Borneo’ (3)

Victor Avecilla




On 16 September 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formally established. The new country included, among others, Singapore. In 1964, Singapore was kicked out of the federation and became a separate country operating under an authoritarian government.

Soon after achieving independence from the British, Malaysia renamed North Borneo Sabah.

Conservative historians believe that Sabah should still be called North Borneo until the Philippine claim to the territory is duly resolved.


On 30 December 1965, Ferdinand E. Marcos succeeded Diosdado Macapagal as the new President of the Philippines. Marcos shared Macapagal’s view that North Borneo is part of Philippine territory and so he continued to pursue the Philippine claim over the same. The Office of North Borneo Affairs also continued to operate under the Marcos administration, until it became dormant in the 1980s.


In 1967, the administration of President Marcos organized Project Merdeka, a secret operation to destabilize the situation in North Borneo and take the territory back from Malaysia. Merdeka is the Malay word for freedom.

A veteran soldier, Major Eduardo “Abdul Latif” Martelino, a convert to Islam, was put in charge of the training of a secret commando unit code-named Jabidah and to get them to carry out Project Merdeka. Other Filipino soldiers were to assist Martelino in the top-secret training done on Corregidor Island at the mouth of Manila Bay.

At that time, Malaysia was at its infancy and was seen as incapable of harnessing enough of its fledgling troops to repel any military assault on North Borneo.

Unfortunately, Operation: Merdeka was aborted due to alleged mismanagement by the commando trainers.

There was an account that the trainees became disgruntled and restless when the benefits promised to them were not forthcoming, and because of that, all but one of the trainees were summarily and stealthily executed by their trainers. That one trainee reportedly managed to escape by jumping into the waters of Manila Bay, and eventually made it back to the nation’s capital.

Sometime in early 1968, that account reached Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino Jr., a neophyte senator elected in November 1967. That early, Aquino was already making himself known as a staunch critic of the Marcos administration.

In a privilege speech delivered in the Senate on 28 March 1968, Aquino exposed Project Merdeka to the public and the press. Soon after that exposé, the incident on Corregidor came to be known as the so-called Jabidah Massacre.

President Marcos was reportedly furious because Aquino’s revelation eliminated any future prospect of the Philippines retaking North Borneo from Malaysia through a military operation.

Many Filipinos of that generation also resented Aquino’s exposé of Operation: Merdeka.

National artist and writer F. Sionil Jose, who was among Aquino’s close friends, recently wrote in his newspaper column that he got angry with Aquino over the Jabidah exposé. He said, “I told him (Aquino) he was too much of an opportunist to use any issue to promote himself and attack Marcos.”


The year 1968 was marked with many events relating to the North Borneo controversy.

New negotiations between the United Kingdom and the Philippines led to nowhere after London again invoked estoppel against Manila, as it did in negotiations held in 1963. London remained adamant in invoking the provisions of the 1935 CONSTITUTION regarding the scope and extent of Philippine territory.

In 1968, the Congress of the Philippines enacted REPUBLIC ACT NO. 5446 by which it amended an earlier statute, REPUBLIC ACT NO. 3046, and declared that North Borneo, or Sabah as Malaysia began calling it, is a territory over which the Republic of the Philippines has sovereignty. This statute took effect on 18 September 1968.

Section 2 of REPUBLIC ACT NO. 5446 states — “SEC. 2. The definition of the baselines of the territorial sea of the Philippine Archipelago as provided in this Act is without prejudice to the delineation of the baselines of the territorial sea around the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty.”


Section 1, Article 1 of the 1935 CONSTITUTION which governed both the Commonwealth of the Philippines and, beginning in 1946, the Republic of the Philippines, embodied a rather detailed description and inventory of the national territory, viz —

“SECTION 1. The Philippines comprises all the territory ceded to the United States by the treaty of Paris concluded between the United States and Spain on the fourth day of December, eighteen hundred and ninety-eight, the limits of which are set forth in Article III of said treaty, together with all the islands embraced in the treaty concluded at Washington, between the United States and Spain on the seventh day of November, nineteen hundred, and in the treaty concluded between the United States and Great Britain on the second day of January, nineteen hundred and thirty, and all territory over which the present Government of the Philippine Islands exercises jurisdiction.”

Since the Philippines acquired its rights over North Borneo from the Sultan of Sulu only on 29 August 1962, North Borneo could not have been part of the national territory of the Philippine Islands when the 1935 CONSTITUTION was drafted and took effect.

The problem with Section 1, Article I of the 1935 CONSTITUTION is its silence on whether or not the Commonwealth of the Philippines, and later the Republic of the Philippines, can acquire territory in addition to the territory already described and identified in Section 1, Article I of the said charter. As discussed earlier, London twice invoked that silence in the 1935 CONSTITUTION against Manila during past negotiations relating to the Philippine claim over North Borneo.


The 1973 CONSTITUTION, which took effect under the administration of President Marcos, provided an amended description and inventory of the national territory of the Philippines. It is embodied in Section 1, Article I thereof –

“SECTION 1. The national territory comprises the Philippine archipelago, with all the islands and waters embraced therein, and all the other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title, including the territorial sea, the air space, the subsoil, the sea-bed, the insular shelves, and the other submarine areas over which the Philippines has sovereignty or jurisdiction. The waters around, between and connecting the islands of the archipelago, irrespective of their breadth and dimensions, form part of the internal waters of the Philippines.” (Emphasis supplied.)

The important phrase in Section 1, Article I of the 1973 CONSTITUTION is “belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title.” It is not found in its counterpart in the 1935 CONSTITUTION.

Experts believe that the phrase “belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title” cures whatever defects, real or apparent, have been perceived in Section 1, Article I of the 1935 CONSTITUTION, because the language of Section 1 is plenary enough to allow the Philippines to acquire territory in addition to those already described and inventoried in the 1935 CONSTITUTION.

It is also broad and encompassing enough to include North Borneo.

To be continued