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Operation Merdeka: Regaining Sabah

Written By J.P. Sakuragi on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 | Tuesday, September 13, 2011



Editor's Note: This is a reprint of my article series "Historical Controversies" in my old blog site. In this article, I will discuss about the plans of President Ferdinand Marcos to annex the Malaysian state of Sabah (the disputed land historically owned by the Sultanate of Sulu) through a covert operation to be conducted by specially-trained commando unit called Jabidah. This article is not aimed to sow hatred against Malaysians and fellow Muslims but to talk about the history of what might have been. In memory of the our Muslim countrymen who were massacred by their Army leaders.


The Philippines is an archipelago of 7,107 islands but some Filipinos don't know that the Malaysian state of Sabah was "part of the country." Before the Philippines gained its independence from the United States in 1946, the state of Sabah was disputed between both countries.

Historical Background

Sabah, then known as North Borneo, was part of the Sultanate of Brunei around the early 16th century, when the Sultanate's influence was at its peak. In 1658 the Sultanate of Brunei ceded the north-east portion of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu in compensation for the latter's help in settling a civil war in the Brunei Sultanate. In 1761 an officer of the British East India Company, Alexander Dalrymple, concluded an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu to allow him to set up a trading post in the region.

On January 23, 1878, in exchange for modern weapons with which to keep Spanish colonizers away from the Sulu Archipelago, the ruler of Sulu, Sultan Jamalul Alam, leased the territory of North Borneo to Baron Gustavus von Overbeck, the Austro-Hungarian Empire's consul-general in Hong Kong. This was accomplished via a trading company belonging to von Overbeck's British partner Alfred Dent, and later via the British North Borneo Company. Von Overbeck procured the necessary firearms and also paid the Muslim dignitary an annual sum equivalent to 5,000 Malaysian dollars (now known as ringgit).

The original lease
(Photo Credit: Bangsamoro.info / Jibrael Angel Blog)
The key word in the agreement was "pajak," which has been translated by American, Dutch and Spanish linguists to mean "lease" or "arrendamiento." The agreement further states explicitly that the rights to the territory may not be transferred to a nation or another company without the sultan's express permission.
This treaty is written in Sulu, at the Palace of the Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam on the 19th day of the month of Muharam, A.H. 1295; that is on the 22nd day of the month of January 1878.

The Land Grant of 1878

Grant By The Sultan of Sulu of a Permanent Lease Covering His Lands and Territories on the Island of Borneo
Date : January 22, 1878

We, Sri Paduka Maulana Al Sultan MOHAMMED JAMALUL ALAM, son of Sari Paduka Marhum Al Sultan MOHAMMED PULALUM, Sultan of Sulu and of all dependencies thereof, on behalf of ourselves and for our heirs and successors, and with the expressed desire of all Datus in common agreement, do hereby desire to lease, of our own free will and satisfaction, to Gustavus Baron de Overbeck of Hong Kong, and to Alfred Dent, Esquire, of London, who act as representatives of a British Company, together with their heirs, associates, successors, and assigns forever and until the end of time, all rights and powers which we possess over all territories and lands tributary to us on the mainland of the island of Borneo, commencing from the Pandasan River on the east, and thence along the whole east coast as afar as the Sibuku area, known as Paitan, Sugut, Banggai, Labuk, Sandakan, China-batangan, Mumiang, and all other territories and coastal lands to the south, bordering on Darvel Bay, and as far as the Sibuku River, together will all the islands which lie within nine miles from the coast. In consideration of this (territorial?) lease, the honorable Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent, Esquire, promise to pay His Highness Maulana Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam and to this heirs and successors, the sum of five thousand dollars annually, to be paid each and every year. The above-mentioned territories are from today truly leased to Mr. Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and to Alfred Dent, Esquire, as already said, together with their heirs, their associates (company) and to their heir successors and assigns for as long as they choose or desire to use them; but the rights and powers hereby leased shall not be transferred to any nation, or a company of other nationality, without the consent of Their Majesties Government. Should there be any dispute, or reviving of old grievances of any kind, between us, and our heirs and successors, with Mr. Gustavus Baron de Overbeck or his Company, then the matter will be brought for consideration or judgment to Their Majesties' Consul-General in Brunei. Moreover, if His Highness Maulana Al Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam, and his heirs and successors, become involved in any trouble or difficulties hereafter, the said honorable Mr. Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and his Company promise to give aid and advice to us within the extent of their ability. This treaty is written in Sulu, at the Palace of the Sultan Mohammed Jamalul Alam on the 19th day of the month of Muharam, A.H. 1295; that is on the 22nd day of the month of January 1878.

Signed: Sultan of Sulu and his Datus
Malaysian Perspective

The Malaysians claimed that the Madrid Protocol of 1885, which was signed by Great Britain, Germany and Spain, has cemented Spanish influence over the Philippine islands. The protocol has also relinquished Spain's claim to North Borneo. They believed that the Philippines, being the Sultanate's successor state, has no legal authority or sovereignty over North Borneo.

In the years immediately before the formation of Malaysia, two commissions of enquiry visited North Borneo (along with neighbouring Sarawak) in order to establish the state of public opinion there regarding merger with Malaya (and Singapore).

It is important to note that neither commission was mandated with addressing the legal status of North Borneo; neither were they 'referendums' in the proper sense. The first commission, usually known as the Cobbold Commission was established by the Malayan and British governments and was headed by Lord Cobbold, along with two representatives of Malaya and Britain (but not either of the territories under investigation). The Commission found that 'About one third of the population of each territory [i.e. of North Borneo and of Sarawak] strongly favours early realisation of Malaysia without too much concern over terms and conditions. Another third, many of them favourable to the Malaysia project, ask, with varying degrees of emphasis, for conditions and safeguards... The remaining third is divided between those who insist upon independence before Malaysia is considered and those who would strongly prefer to see British rule continue for some years to come'.

Sultan Jamalul Kiram II and his cabinet
(Photo Credit: SMJ-Site)
Indonesia and the Philippines rejected the findings of the Cobbold Commission. In 1963, a tripartite meeting was held in Manila between Indonesian president Sukarno, Philippine president Diosdado Macapagal and Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman. The meeting agreed to petition the United Nations to send another commission of enquiry and the Philippines and Indonesia agreed to drop their objection to the formation of Malaysia if the new commission found popular opinion in the territories in favor. The UN Mission to Borneo was thus established, comprising members of the UN Secretariat from Argentina, Brazil, Ceylon, Czechoslovakia, Ghana, Pakistan, Japan and Jordan. The Mission's report, authored by UN Secretary-General U Thant found ‘a sizeable majority of the people' in favor of joining Malaysia. Although Indonesia and the Philippines subsequently rejected the report's findings – and Indonesia continued its semi-military policy of konfrontasi towards Malaysia – the report in effect sealed the creation of Malaysia.

In this case, if I were a resident of Sabah, I would probably want to be part of a country that is predominantly Muslim and I see such strategy imposed by Malaysia as the main reason why she got Sabah in the first place. Surely all inhabitants want to be part of the newly-formed Federation of Malaya.

Sabah's position within Malaysia was reinforced by the ruling made by the International Court of Justice for Pulau Sipadan and Pulau Ligitan to remain under the jurisdiction and sovereignty of Malaysia rather than Indonesia. However, Malaysia continues to consistently reject Philippine calls to bring the matter of Sabah's jurisdiction to the ICJ.

Filipino Perspective

The Sultanate of Sulu was granted the north-eastern part of the territory as a prize for helping the Sultan of Brunei against his enemies and from then on that part of Borneo was recognized as part of the Sultan of Sulu's sovereignty. In 1878, Baron von Overbeck and his partner Alfred Dent, leased the territory of Sabah. In return, the company was to provide arms to the Sultan to resist the Spaniards and 5,000 Malayan dollars annual rental based on the Mexican dollar's value at that time or its equivalent in gold. This lease was continued until the independence and formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963 together with Singapore, Sarawak and the states of Malaya. As of 2004, the Malaysian Embassy to the Philippines had been paying cession/rental money amounting to US$1,500 per year (about 6,300 Malaysian Ringgits) to the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu.

I find so conflicting to the Malaysian position, if they really owned Sabah then why are they still paying rent to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu until this day? If they are paying such rents, they should have increased it because 5,000 Malaysian dollars a century ago is not the same value now.

The Sultan of Sulu negotiating with European visitors
(Photo Credit: Royal Sulu)
The contract between Sri Paduka Maulana Al Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Alam, representing the sultanate as owner and sovereign of Sabah on one hand, and that of Gustavus Baron de Overbeck and Alfred Dent representing the North Borneo Company, on the other as lessees of Sabah, was executed on January 22, 1878. The Lease prohibits the transfer of Sabah to any nation, company or individual without the consent of His Majesty’s Government (“Government of the Sultan of Sulu”). Although it is mentioned to be a permanent lease, it is contrary to international law, which states that the terms for a lease contract can only be for 99 years, as in the case of Hong Kong and Macau when these were leased to Great Britain and Portugal respectively, by China and subsequently returned after the expiration of the lease. This would make the lease on Sabah overdue by 130 years.

If Britain released Hong Kong and Macao to China, why not Sabah?

The High Court of North Borneo has awarded the ownership
of North Borneo to the heirs of Dayang Dayang Hadji Piandao
(Photo Credit: SMJ-Site)
In spite of that, the United States formally reminded Great Britain in 1906 and 1920 that Sabah did not belong to them and was still part of the Sultanate of Sulu on the premise that Spain never acquired sovereignty over North Borneo to transfer all its claims of sovereignty over North Borneo to Great Britain on the Madrid Protocol of 1885. This is so because the Sultan of Sulu did not include his territory and dominion in North Borneo in signing the treaty of 1878 recognizing the Spanish sovereignty over “Jolo and its dependencies.” North Borneo was never considered a dependency of Jolo. 

In 1939, a court judgement on the claim had handed ownership of North Borneo to the heirs of the Sultanate before the formation of Malaysian federation in 1963. The judgement of Chief Justice C.F.C. Makaskie of the High Court of North Borneo in the civil suit filed by the late Dayang Dayang Hadji Piandao and eight other heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, including the famous Putlih (Princess) Tarhata Kiram, upheld the validity of the claim of the heirs.

However, the British Government ignored the reminder and still annexed the territory of North Borneo as a Crown Colony on July 10, 1946. This was in spite of the fact that the British Government was aware of the decision made by the High Court of North Borneo on December 19, 1939, that the successor of the Sultan in the territory of Sabah was the Government of the Philippine Islands and not Great Britain.

On September 12, 1962, during President Diosdado Macapagal's administration (the father of Philippine president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo), the territory of North Borneo, and the full sovereignty, title and dominion over the territory were ceded by the then reigning Sultan of Sulu, HM Sultan Muhammad Esmail E. Kiram I, to the Republic of the Philippines. The cession effectively gave the Philippine government the full authority to pursue their claim in international courts. The Philippines broke diplomatic relations with Malaysia after the federation had included Sabah in 1963. It was revoked in 1989 because succeeding Philippine administrations have placed the claim in the back burner in the interest of pursuing cordial economic and security relations with Kuala Lumpur. To date, Malaysia continues to consistently reject Philippine calls to resolve the matter of Sabah's jurisdiction to the International Court of Justice.

Her Royal Highness Tarhata Kiram, the Princess of Sulu (c. 1930's)
(Photo Credit: SMJ-Site)
The sad part of giving up to our claim to Sabah is just erasing an important chapter of our history. Our irredentist forebears have fought hard to regain our territories but now many have surrendered our national interests for money.
Diplomats from both countries have tried to settle the issue but to no avail and in this case, it seems diplomacy has failed us Filipinos. Maybe, the Malaysians were lucky enough to get what they wanted -- Sabah. But in my readings in history, I never thought that such cold relations between Philippines and Malaysia has reached to its low point. They almost went to war! Though many said that Malaysia has openly supported the secessionist Muslims in Mindanao (i.e. Moro National Liberation Front, Moro Islamic Liberation Front and other splinter groups) in waging a "proxy war" against the Philippine Armed Forces. I never realized that the Philippines planned a covert mission to regain its 'lost land.'

It seems war may have been the case. The irredentist feelings ran high in the 1960's that it seems a cold war seemed to be brewing between Malaysia and the Philippines. At that time, Malaysia is still struggling as a young nation and was in a serious race conflict and Communist insurgencies in the countryside. In contrast, the Philippines was one of the most progressive countries in Asia due to large American aid and Japanese war reparations. A war between both countries may have been one-sided in favor of the Philippines not to mention that the RP-US Mutual Defense Treaty can provide the Philippines offensive another knockout punch with its large American presence on stand by at Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base.

Hatching the Plan

This dispute led the-then Philippine presidents Diosdado Macapagal then later on Ferdinand Marcos to establish special military units tasked with fomenting dissent amongst Sabah's non-Malay ethnic groups, namely the Tausug and Sama, two groups closely aligned ethnically and culturally with the Bangsamoro.

The code-name of this destabilization program was "Operation Merdeka" (Operation Freedom), with Manuel Syquio as project leader and then Maj. Eduardo Abdul Latif Martelino as operations officer. The plan involved the recruitment of nearly 200 Tausug and Sama Muslims aged 18 to 30 from Sulu and Tawi-Tawi and their training in the island-town of Simunul, which was where the Arab missionary Makhdum built the first mosque in the Philippines in the 13th century. The recruits were excited about the promise not only of a monthly allowance, but also over the prospect of eventually becoming a member of an elite unit in the Philippine Armed Forces. From August to December 1967, the young recruits underwent training in Simunul. The name of the the commando unit: Jabidah.

According to "The Corregidor Massacre - 1968," by Paul Whitman, on December 30, 1968, from 135 to 180 recruits boarded a Philippine Navy vessel for the island of Corregidor in Luzon for "specialized training."

However, the second phase of the training turned mutinous when the recruits discovered their true mission was to fight their brother Muslims in Sabah and also possibly killing their own Tausug and Sama relatives living there. Additionally, the recruits had already begun to feel disgruntled over the non-payment of the promised P50 monthly allowance. The recruits then demanded to be returned home. For the military planners, it seemed that there was only one choice.

As the sole survivor later recounted, the plotters led the trainees out of their Corregidor barracks on the night of March 18, 1968 in batches of twelve. They were taken to a nearby airstrip. There, the plotters mowed the trainees down with gunfire. Jibin Arula, the survivor, said that he heard a series of shots and saw his colleagues fall. He ran towards a mountain and rolled off the edge on to the sea. He recalled clinging to a plank of wood and stayed afloat. By morning, fishers from nearby Cavite rescued him.

The massacre of the trainees was the spark that launched the Muslim insurgency in Mindanao.

Alternate History

I have envisioned an alternate history of what might have been if the Jabidah massacre never happened and so the following essay is entirely fiction so please don't take it seriously. Its just my impression of the point of divergence wherein the territorial dispute went hot.

What if the Jabidah Massacre never happened and the operational phase of the secret mission went to effect? Attacking Malaysia at this time may have been the perfect opportunity to do it. According to Whitman, "Marcos could not have chosen a more auspicious time to try and reclaim Sabah. Malaysia was only a fledgling state at that point, made even more wobbly by the secession of Singapore in 1965, two years after its independence from Britain. Too, Malaysia was embroiled in a border dispute with powerful Indonesia. And there was the Philippines' Sabah claim to boot. It was all that Malaysia could do to prevent itself from coming apart at the seams."

Imagine, 200 Jabidah commandos onboard several motorized bancas reached their respective assignment in various parts of the Sabah coastline. Many of these commandos have infiltrated various towns in the region. By this time, they have already urged the locals to rise up against the Malaysian authorities. Many of these commandos even claimed that they are liberating them from the "oppressive" government.

The main invasion force was preparing in Zamboanga City for an amphibious assault in Sabah. The elements of the newly-formed Philippine Marine Expeditionary Force (PMEF) and the war-decorated PEFTOK (Philippine Expeditionary Force to Korea), now designated as PEFTOS (Philippine Expeditionary Force to Sabah), have started its voyage to the battle front. The PEFTOS is composed of the 10th Battalion Combat Team (Motorized), 20th Battalion Combat Team (Leaders), 19th Battalion Combat Team (Bloodhound), 14th Battalion Combat Team (Avengers) and 2nd Battalion Combat Team (Bulldogs). They are the same battle-hardened units that saw action in the three-year Korean conflict.

In reality, the Malaysians were also misinformed in the diplomatic front because Foreign Affairs Secretary Narciso Ramos relayed President Marcos' message to Malaysian Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman that the so-called 'military activity' was only a joint-military exercise by the Philippine Navy and Philippine Marines. Secretary Ramos reiterated that there is no such "provocative actions" made. Even though the Philippines broke diplomatic relations with her neighbor in 1963, the goverment tried to persuade the Malaysians that they were not thinking of some sort of "treachery."

X-day for Operation Merdeka was scheduled on July 17, 1968.

On July 16, the Sabah issue came to a precipitous height as angry mobs roamed the cities of Kota Kinabalu, Sandakan, and several small towns throughout the region. Many of the people, mostly of Tausug and Sama descent, burned the flags of their Malaysian rulers as they welcomed the Jabidah commandos as liberators. Caught by this whirlwind of events, the Malaysian armed forces were still in the peninsula and by this time they knew that the invasion was imminent.

The following day, the newly-commissioned Garcia-class frigates from the US Navy began softening the landing points of the PMEF and PEFTOS. The bombardment was so severe that not a single Malaysian soldier came up to opposed the amphibious assault.

The Philippine forces eventually reached Kota Kinabalu in less than a week and eventually combined with the Jabidah commandos. The Malaysian forces from the peninsula were on-route but it was harassed by the Philippine Fleet off the coast of Sarawak. Meanwhile, in the Philippine-occupied Sabah, the celebration was premature because some hard-line militias ambushed some of the Philippine forces that were posted in the outlying towns.

Indonesia, which earlier lost an undeclared war against Malaysia in 1962 to 1966, decided to align with the Philippines because both of them have scored to settle. In a secret deal, both countries will aid each other in the event of a Malaysian attack. The following day, the Indonesian Navy made a daring attack on the Royal Malaysian Navy's dockyards in Lumut at Perak province. Undeterred, the RMN was able to send some of its troops to Sarawak to face the PMEF but little did they know that the Indonesian Army was on its way to attack them from the rear.

The British, Australian and New Zealand governments, who are Malaysia's allies, saw such conflict to go out of hand. They raise their protests over the joint Philippine-Indonesian agression over Malaysia. But these diplomatic uproar fell on deaf ears. The Americans were also concerned about the situation because it is already embroiled in the conflict in Vietnam and that it is not prepared to go to another conflict in the region. But the Americans are obligated to help to defend the Philippines as part of their 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty and at the same time afraid to get into a conflict with its Cold War allies -- Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. And so the Western governments have convened in Hawaii to discuss about the idea of not to support either of the belligerents. This decision means that there will be no active support given by the Americans to the Philippines and the British to the Malaysia. The war as to be fought between Malaysia, Philippines and Indonesia.

As the RMN attacked the Philippine-occupied Sabah, the IA attacked Sarawak on July 28, 1968. An effective rear-guard action by the RMA slowed down the Indonesia advance but effective pincer movement enabled the Indonesian armored division to punch through Malaysian lines and a crack Indonesian commando force managed to infiltrate into Sarawak under the cover of the thick rainforest of Kalimantan Timur. The bewildered RMN's supply lines were cut and on August 1, a joint Philippine-Indonesian force was paradropped into Bandar Seri Begawan that was aimed to breakout into multiple directions. The Brunei sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin allowed the troops to use his domain as their staging point as long as they will keep the peace in his land.

The Malaysians were in disarray as the Indonesian and Philippine troops were slowly converging from their positions and so on August 15, 1968, Malaysia surrendered. A peace treaty was signed in Cebu on September 9, 1968 with President Marcos, Indonesian leader Suharto and Malaysian Prime Minister Rahman. The Philippines annexed Sabah, Indonesia annexed southern Sarawak and northern Sarawak was subjected to sectors of occupation by both Philippine and Indonesian troops. As a reward for their support of the Philippine-Indonesian invasion force, Brunei was granted independence on September 10.

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