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‘An anthology on the Philippine claim to North Borneo’ (6)

Victor Avecilla




Civic leader Louis “Barok” Biraogo, a known advocate of constitutionalism, lamented the bloodshed in North Borneo and the pro-Malaysian stand of President Benigno Aquino III and Secretary Albert del Rosario.

On April 4, 2013, weeks after the North Borneo incursion, Biraogo filed a petition for mandamus in the Supreme Court to compel del Rosario to press the Philippine claim to North Borneo before the International Court of Justice and other international fora.

Biraogo’s expectation looked like a pipe dream because under International Law, Malaysia will have to first agree to any suit filed against it in the International Court of Justice, if the world court is to validly exercise jurisdiction over any dispute between Manila and Kuala Lumpur.

That may be so, but according to Biraogo, pressing the claim at a world forum would, at the very least, invite international moral support for the Sultan of Sulu in his quest to get back what Malaysia unlawfully seized from the sultanate through the illegal acts committed by the United Kingdom.

In Biraogo v. del Rosario (G.R. No. 206323, Resolution dated April 11, 2013), the Supreme Court en banc dismissed Biraogo’s petition on the ground that since foreign policy is the exclusive domain of the executive department of the government, the Court cannot meddle in the same. It took the Supreme Court a record seven (7) days to rule against the petitioner.

Despite the petition, Aquino III and del Rosario kept silent on the illegality of Malaysia’s grip on North Borneo. Biraogo suspected, but was unable to prove at that time, that Aquino III and del Rosario were allies of Malaysia on the North Borneo issue.

Investigative reports recently published in the Daily Tribune and one more newspaper have vindicated Biraogo’s suspicions, and now confirm that all along, Aquino III and del Rosario were willing to relinquish the Philippine claim to North Borneo in order to woo Kuala Lumpur’s cooperation in the Philippines’ territorial claims against China in the South China Sea.

That revelation is confirmed by Rigoberto D. Tiglao, a popular columnist of The Manila Times. He wrote about it in his column published in September 2019.


Upon his election in 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte announced that the Philippine claim on North Borneo will be part of his advocacies as president.

A few months ago, the current Sultan of Sulu and his family expressed their wish that President Duterte will live up to that promise.

Recent developments indicate that the government under President Duterte is, indeed, determined to carry out its promise.


On July 27, 2020, Secretary Teodoro Locsin, Jr. of the Department of Foreign Affairs learned that the embassy of the United States in Manila announced on its Twitter micro-blogging account that hygiene kits were handed out to Filipino repatriates “from Sabah, Malaysia.”

After making that discovery, Locsin asked the American embassy to edit its tweet. Locsin bluntly stated, “Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines.”

Secretary Locsin also revealed that Malaysia tried to sabotage Manila’s victory in 2016 in the international arbitration court against Communist China’s on-going expansionist activities in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone in the West Philippine Sea.

Locsin also shared an accusation made by ex-Senator JV Ejercito that Malaysia secretly supported the Muslim rebellion in Mindanao. According to Locsin, Ejercito told him that the Malaysians “are allegedly secretly supporting the terrorists in the South. I suspect that a lot of funding and arms of these bandits are coursed through Malaysia. So that the Philippine government will have its hands full to even think about the Sabah issue (sic).”

Secretary Locsin added that, “The Armed Forces does (sic) not forget who bankrolled the Muslim secession with arms and cash and bled us dry.”

Locsin also asserted that when President Ferdinand Marcos organized Project Merdeka to take back North Borneo from Malaysia in 1967, the Filipino people, including Marcos’ critics of that period, supported Marcos.

The United States, Locsin said, discouraged that plan because the Americans did not want the North Borneo matter to add to their growing problem in the Vietnam War at that time. In response, Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein labelled Locsin’s tweet “an irresponsible statement that affects bilateral ties. On June 30, 2020, Hussein summoned Charles Jose, the Philippine ambassador to Malaysia.

Former Sabah chief minister Musa Aman issued a statement telling the Philippines to back off from its claim over North Borneo, and to stop using the issue for its “political purposes.”

Another former Malaysian foreign minister, Anifah Aman, also criticized Locsin for the latter’s statement. Aman is from North Borneo.

As expected, Locsin stood his ground and told the Malaysians that the Philippines, like any other country, is free to say what it wants.

More particularly, Locsin tweeted, “No country can tell another what it can and cannot say about what the latter regards as rightfully its own. I don’t insist (that) China (should) say only what we want to hear about the arbitral award. It is free to say what it wants while we say and do what needs doing. That holds for Sabah.”

In a tit-for-tat move, Locsin also summoned Norman bin Muhamad, the Malaysian ambassador to the Philippines, for a discussion.


On August 27, 2020, Malaysia sent a note verbale to the United Nations stating that the Philippine claim over North Borneo has no basis. Malaysia cited a ruling of the International Court of Justice rendered in 2001 to the effect that “modern international law does not recognize the survival of a right to sovereignty based solely on historic title.”

Legal experts contend that Malaysia’s statement is off-tangent. The fact that Kuala Lumpur regularly paid rent for North Borneo to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu shows that the Philippine claim to North Borneo is not based solely on historic title, but also on legal fact.

At any rate, the Sultanate of Sulu dismissed the note verbale as a mere publicity stunt on the part of Malaysia.


In August 2020, Cagayan de Oro Representative Rufus Rodriguez sponsored in the House of Representatives of Congress HOUSE BILL NO. 6399.

The Rodriguez measure seeks to amend REPUBLIC ACT NO. 6239, or the PHILIPPINE PASSPORT ACT OF 1996, by requiring the printing of the Philippine map on Philippine passports to include the West Philippine Sea and the Philippines’ legal and historic rights over North Borneo.

To be continued