The ghost of the Sulu Sultanate

by Tay Tian Yan, translated by Dominic Loh

The North Borneo of yesterday, the Sabah of today, used to be a territory of the Sulu Sultanate.

But that was four centuries ago.

Last week, some 200 armed members of the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army,” including a self-professed “prince,” landed in Lahad Datu and claimed “homecoming.”

A temporal misplace aside, the dramatic turn has also infused some elements of historical blunders and ethnic complex.

In the same way, the Portuguese conquered Melaka several hundreds years ago.

Imagine, if out of the blue several hundred armed Portuguese men charge into the crumbly A Famosa in elevated spirit and loudly proclaim, “We are the descendants of the Emperor of Portugal. We are coming back to the Melaka we once ruled!”

The onlookers could be forgiven for thinking that they have roamed into a movie set, or probably a band of inmates has just run loose from the lunatic asylum.

The landing of the “Royal Sulu Sultanate Army” personnel in Sabah is, unfortunately, a real thing.

The Portuguese empire, along with many other kingdoms, emperors, empresses, sultans and rajahs that once walked this world, were all gone long ago. The Sulu Sultanate and its royalty, nevertheless, remain vaguely present to this day, hovering around the Sulu Sea, eager to manifest itself just as the world is starting to forget about it.

The immediate reaction of Malaysia was one of bewilderment.

It was reported that some local residents mistook the intruders to be the infamous Abu Sayyaf guerillas and ran for their lives overnight.

Our government also appeared equally confounded, not knowing where they had come from. Bloodshed would be inevitable if they were to raid the intruders by force. If the government initiated amiable talks with them, it might then come under the fire from the public.

Indeed, our marine defence corps should be held accountable for the unchartered entry of these people, and it is imperative that the defence of our coastline be reinforced in the future to prevent the recurrence of such incidents.

Now that they have landed on our territory, we ought to try our best to evade any possible conflict, and get the intruders to leave peacefully through negotiation.

Anyway, these uninvited guests do not belong to a terror outfit, and they have not caused any harm to anyone so far. Although their “homecoming” stint was both unjustifiable and unacceptable, their predicament should at least call for some sympathy.

Historically Sabah was indeed a constituent part of the Sulu Sultanate spanning from western Mindanao across the Sulu Sea to North Borneo.

With the advent of the British colonial power to this region over 200 years ago, North Borneo was leased from the Sultan of Sulu as a trading post with the condition that weapons be supplied to the sultan to confront the invading Spaniards.

In the end, the sultanate was still wiped out by the Spaniards and became a part of the Spanish colony of Philippines. Spain later signed an accord with Britain to cede North Borneo to the latter.

After the Federation of Malaysia was formed, Sabah has since become a part of Malaysia.

As a weaker and defeated component in the turbulent changes taking place over the last two centuries, the Sulu Sultanate was in no position to participate nor negotiate in its destiny.

And when Manila struck a peace deal with the MILF for the establishment of Bangsamoro autonomous region not too long ago, the Sulu royalty found itself once again shunned. This could have possibly prompted them to leave Mindanao for Sabah.

But Sabah is no longer their home today.


This article first appeared in mysinchew.com

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