Sabah Syndrome in the West Philippine Sea
In December 2018 I placed third in the national essay contest on issues relating to the West Philippine Sea. The contest was sponsored by the Maritime Law Association of the Philippines (MARLAW). I submitted an essay titled “Sabah Syndrome in the West Philippine Sea.”
I am reminded of this essay after Pres. Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. stated in his first SONA the overarching policy on the issue of West Philippine Sea. The President declared “I will not preside over any process that will abandon even one square inch of territory of the Republic of the Philippines to any foreign power.”
This was the most applauded part of his first SONA. Pres. Marcos Jr added, we will be friends to all and enemy to none. Obviously to assure China.
While the policy supports the Constitutional provision on the integrity of the national territory. It ignores the obvious – China is an occupying foreign power in the West Philippine Sea. And our China policy do not explicitly enunciate this reality.
We pretend to be blind and we presume friendship even if China grabbed, reclaimed, and constructed military facilities inside the West Philippine Sea. And worst, Chinese Coast Guards watch, and play cat and mouse with our Marines whenever they replenish supplies to our troops stationed in Sierra Madre, the Fletcher Class WW2 Destroyer beached in Ayungin Shoal of the Kalayaan Island Group.
The Chinese seem to play the long game, waiting for the old boat to rot until the Philippine Marines will abandon it and the Shoal.
And the President’s policy keeps silent and waits.
This is how we lost Sabah. In 1963, the administrations of Macapagal pretended that everything was okay, until the Philippines was blindsided by Tunku Abdul Rahman and Lee Kuan Yew, when they encouraged a Filipino, Mohammad Stephens to organized the Filipinos in Sabah for a referendum to affirm joining the then soon to be established Federal State of Malaysia. Stephens loaded boats of Tausugs from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and made them Malaysian Citizens to populate Sabah as member of the Federal State of Malaysia.
Pres. Diosdado Macapagal put up a tepid protest. But it was in vain. We did not aggressively claim Sabah decades earlier as part of our territory, specifically in 1935 at the start of the Commonwealth. Our leaders at that time kept silent about the US and Britain Convention delimiting the boundary of Mindanao and North Borneo in 1930. That silence was interpreted by Malaysia as our acquiesce to their advantage. We inherited from our colonizer the Convention that clearly delimit our boundary outside of North Borneo. In other words, our Sabah claim was informal, until we included Sabah in our National Map in the 60s. This was largely in response to the blindsiding by Tunku Abdul Raman with the overt support of a Filipino Tausug, Mohammad Stephens.
Then Jabidah Massacre happened and hell rained down on Mindanao, including Sibugay where my generation suffered.
After Jabidah, the Malaysians agitated the Muslim Filipinos in Muslim Mindanao to secede. They supported Nur Missuari to organize in the Tausug areas including Sibugay. And Hashim Salamat to organize in the Maguindanao and Maranao areas. At the forefront of this agitation was Mohammad Stephens, the Filipino Tausug who became the State Minister of Sabah under the Federal State of Malaysia.
In 1969, the first batch of 2,000 Muslim youths from Cotabato, Sibugay, Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi went to Libya and trained to become combatants in the secessionist war of Muslim Mindano. By 1971, war erupted in Boldon, Cotabato and Ipil, now the Capital of Sibugay. All throughout that war, Mohammad Stephens funneled arms, ammunitions, sea ambulance for the wounded and had them treated and cared for in Hospital Elizabeth of Sendakan, Sabah.
By and large, the secessionist war of Mindanao was an of shoot of our dispute with Malaysia over Sabah. And our loss of Sabah happened because our leaders kept silent when they should have clearly enunciated our sovereign claim of Sabah, by virtue of the ceding by the Sultan of Sulu of all its territories to the Republic of the Philippines.
The Chinese will do the same to our national peril. First, they will populate Palawan with illegal Chinese emigrants until they can vote and become majority. Then, they will agitate to weaken our claim of the West Philippine Sea by recognizing inter people interaction between the Chinese civilian/military facilities and local Filipino Chinese in whatever means, like ordinary commercial supply agreements.
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Normalization by business transaction is a dominant playbook by the Chinese. In the end, our claim over the Chinese occupied parts of the West Philippine Sea becomes de facto and de jure. And like Sabah, we lost the territory forever until China loses in war over the South China Sea.