Kissinger cables: Malaysia sought US help to stop Philippines’ Sabah claim

The Sultanate of Sulu has laid claim to Sabah, saying it had merely leased North Borneo in 1878 to the British North Borneo Company. — Reuters file picThe Sultanate of Sulu has laid claim to Sabah, saying it had merely leased North Borneo in 1878 to the British North Borneo Company. — Reuters file picKUALA LUMPUR, April 9 — Malaysia had pleaded with the US government to intervene in the Philippines’ claim over Sabah in 1973, according to a series of recently declassified US diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks yesterday.

A secret cable from Henry Kissinger’s term as the US Secretary of State showed that former Malaysian ambassador to the US Tun Omar Ong Yoke Lin had arranged a meeting with US ambassador Jack W. Lydman to discuss the issue, possibly under orders from then Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak Hussein.

“Ong presented the, by now, well-known Government of Malaysia (GOM) position on problem with Government of Philippines (GOP), but with special emphasis on deep concern of Razak about this problem and its impact on his relations with Marcos and unity of Asean,” said Lydman, who was posted to Malaysia between 1969 and 1973.

“His 30 minute pitch ... ended up with a fairly direct request that US Government (USG) use its influence on Marcos to have him agree to abandon Sabah claim,” he wrote, referring to then President of the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos.

The North Borneo territories were ceded by the Sulu Sultanate to the Macapagal administration in 1962, leading the Philippines to pursue its claim over Sabah in international courts. When Sabah was included in the Federation of Malaysia, diplomatic relations between the two countries were temporarily severed.

The Malaysia-Philippines counter-claims on Sabah were mentioned in several cables, with most referencing the Islamic insurgency in the Philippines by jihadist groups, of which Malaysia is a supporter.

Lydman, however, refused Malaysia’s request, preferring to keep his government’s “hands off” policy, despite sharing Razak’s concerns over the problems raised by the situation.

“We remained convinced that so far as the Sabah claim was concerned, it was best resolved between the two countries themselves,” Lydman said, suggesting that if any “encouragement” is needed, it should be exerted by Asean members themselves.

The ambassador stressed that it would be difficult for Marcos to abandon his claim “with a gun at his head”, claiming that only a “serious discussion” between Razak and his counterpart could resolve the issue.

Lydman also revealed that Razak was not interested to help the secession of Philippine Muslims, preferring to offer any assistance possible to Marcos instead.

In stark comparison, the Najib administration has openly supported the Moro people’s cause, as Putrajaya brokered the peace accord between the Philippines government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) last year.

Last month, the Philippine government had reportedly engaged a team of lawyers to study the country’s claim on Sabah amid the protracted “Ops Daulat” offensive campaign to flush out armed Sulu invaders in Lahad Datu, Sabah, which has been going on for over a month with no end in sight.

The debate about the Philippine government and the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim on Sabah resurfaced following an incursion into Sabah’s east coast by a group of over 200 armed followers of the self-styled Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III in February.

The Sultanate of Sulu has laid claim to Sabah, saying it had merely leased North Borneo in 1878 to the British North Borneo Company for an annual payment of 5,000 Malayan dollars then, which was increased to 5,300 Malayan dollars in 1903.

Sabah, however, joined Malaya, Sarawak and Singapore to form Malaysia in 1963, after which Malaysia continued paying an annual stipend of RM5,300 to the Sulu sultanate on the basis of the sultanate ceding the Borneo state.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak had previously highlighted the Cobbold Commission’s 1962 referendum in Sabah and Sarawak, where about two-thirds of the people voted to be part of Malaysia.

Malaysia’s Bar Council had last month said the Sulu sultanate no longer holds any legal claim over Sabah, pointing out that the International Court of Justice (ICJ) had recognised Malaysia’s rights and sovereignty over Sabah and the islands surrounding it during a territorial dispute in 2002.

The ICJ recognised Malaysia’s claim in its decision on the dispute between Malaysia and Indonesia over the islands of Ligitan and Sipadan, off the coast of Sabah, in December 2002. The Philippines had at the time applied to intervene in the case, but its application was rejected.


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