Who owns Sulu?

In what appeared to be an impromptu interview, President Aquino last Thursday spoke of his apprehensions over the tense situation that has developed in the wake of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III’s decision to send his “royal army” to reclaim Sabah as part of the Sulu “homeland.” Asked about his position on the country’s dormant claim to sovereignty over Sabah, the President deftly avoided making any explicit statement on the issue, saying that his Cabinet was still compiling the data and studying the documents.

He admitted that he found the Sabah question confusing. “Everybody was signing a document in his native language. And you wonder how many of them understood what was written in the other copy. Now, I am not an expert. I have tasked the experts to study all of this and to find out precisely where we stand.”

In the course of this free-wheeling interview, the President posed a question that carried broad implications. I’m quoting from the interview as reported by the Inquirer. “If we agree that the Sultan of Sulu owns Sabah, does that also mean that they own Sulu? If we (the sultanate) own Sulu, can we (the sultanate) suddenly say we are separate from the Philippines?” The President’s question touches on the very core issues underpinning the claim to a Bangsamoro homeland.

Like the other royal families of Sulu, the Kiram heirs most likely still own huge tracts of land in Sulu. Much communal land was privately titled during the American period. Still, one can assume that a big portion of the land in these parts belongs to the ancestral domain of the people of Sulu and remains communal. I am not aware that any of the royal families has any pending private claim to the entire island. Ownership is not the main issue in Muslim Mindanao.

It is the question of sovereignty over Sulu (and by extension, the rest of Muslim Mindanao) that has preoccupied generations of the Moro people. This is what they have fought for over the centuries. All around them, they have seen how neighboring islands flourished under colonial rule, and how their own fierce struggle to stay free isolated them from the major currents of modern development. Despite this, they have persisted in their quixotic quest to govern themselves.

Compared to the rest of us, the Moros were better equipped politically and culturally to resist colonial subjugation and wage war against foreign invaders. The sultanates were effective structures of rule in their time, and the spread of Islam in Mindanao well before the arrival of Spain had given its inhabitants a unifying and coherent way of life. On this basis, they fought Spain, they fought the United States, and they have continued to fight the Philippine government.

It is fascinating that P-Noy brought up the question of historic documents becoming objects of contestation. Something is indeed always lost (or added) in translation. He was referring to the 1878 agreement on Sabah between the Sultan of Sulu and the British North Borneo Co. But he could have been describing the US misreading of the 1899 Bates Treaty, which formed the basis of American rule over Mindanao until 1915.

The Bates Treaty, says the writer Saul Hofileña Jr. in his book “Under the Stacks,” led to the enactment of laws that caused the distribution of Moro ancestral lands to Christians and Americans. These actions sparked a war whose aftereffects continue to be felt until today.  Among the most crucial in changing the political and social landscape of Mindanao, according to Hofileña, are the following: Public Land Act No. 718 which virtually erased land grants given to the traditional leaders of indigenous communities, a mining law passed in 1903 which opened up all public lands to exploration by Americans, the Cadastral Act of 1907 which ordered the survey of public lands for titling purposes, the 1912 resettlement of landless peasants from Luzon and the Visayas, and Acts No. 2254 and 2280 of the Philippine Commission which authorized the establishment of agricultural colonies in Mindanao.

All such actions drew their authority from Article I of the Bates Treaty. The Americans insisted that the article clearly stated: “The Sovereignty of the United States over the whole archipelago of Jolo and its dependencies is declared and acknowledged.” But this provision did not exist in the vernacular version bearing the signature of the Sultan. A subsequent translation of the Sulu text commissioned by Director F.W. Carpenter of the Bureau of Non-Christian Tribes rendered Article I thus: “The Land of Sulu and its Islands are under the protection of the American Government.” No mention of American sovereignty. Under the terms of this treaty, Sulu was recognized as a self-governing entity under the protectorate of America. It was only on March 22, 1915, under the Carpenter Agreement, that the Sultan explicitly ceded “sovereignty over the Philippine portion of the Sultanate of Sulu in favor of the United States Government.” But, by then, so much had already happened that was irreversible.

American sovereignty over Muslim Mindanao later passed on to an independent Philippine Republic. But it is important to bear in mind that Spain and America were always fully cognizant of the particularities of Muslim Mindanao. After ceding the Philippines to the United States under the Treaty of Paris, Spain made a move to return Jolo to the Sultan of Sulu, leaving the Americans to negotiate their own treaty. This prompted the US colonial authorities to propose the Bates Treaty. But, even as they asserted full sovereignty in 1915, the Americans thought it proper to deal with Muslim Mindanao as a separate Moro province.

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