The Complex History of Sabah: A Tale of Territorial Disputes in Southeast Asia

In recent years, territorial disputes in Southeast Asia, particularly involving China, have garnered significant attention. Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam have frequently found themselves in conflicts with China, primarily centered around territorial boundaries in the South China Sea. However, the South China Sea disputes are just one facet of the numerous international conflicts involving Southeast Asian nations. Before the tensions with China came to the forefront, countries within Southeast Asia had their own territorial disputes. This article delves into the historical complexities of the Sabah dispute involving Malaysia and the Philippines, shedding light on its origins and the diplomatic efforts to resolve it.

Long before the South China Sea disputes captured headlines, Southeast Asian nations were embroiled in territorial conflicts. One notable example is the Sipadan and Ligitan dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia in 2002, which culminated in Malaysia’s victory at the International Court of Justice. Additionally, Indonesia and Malaysia faced off over Ambalat, while Thailand and Cambodia clashed over the Preah Vihear Temple in 2008, leading to armed conflict.

The Sabah dispute between Malaysia and the Philippines has deep historical roots. Sabah’s history is marked by a complex series of changes in political control. The Sultanate of Sulu gained control of Sabah from the Sultanate of Brunei in the early 18th century. In 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu leased Sabah to Baron van Overbeck and Alfred Dent, with the latter establishing the British North Borneo Company in 1881 to administer the territory. Sabah became part of the British Protectorate until the Japanese occupation in 1941. After World War II, Sabah returned to British control in 1946.

The Philippines, led by President Diosdado Macapagal, initiated its claim over Sabah in June 1962. Macapagal had been involved in asserting the claim since his tenure as a representative in the Philippine Congress in 1949. The issue was brought to international attention during the London meetings in January–February 1963 and the Mafilindo forum in July 1963. The Philippines advocated for a referendum in Sabah and Sarawak, but the outcome favored the formation of the Malaysian Federation in 1963.

The Philippines’ dissatisfaction with the referendum results led to strained diplomatic relations between Malaysia and the Philippines in 1967. President Ferdinand Marcos exacerbated tensions by unilaterally including Sabah in the Philippines’ territory through Republic Act 5546. The ASEAN founding members—Indonesia, Thailand, and Singapore—adopted a cautious approach, emphasizing dialogue and conflict resolution. In 1968, ASEAN foreign ministers held meetings to address the Malaysia-Philippines dispute, resulting in a diplomatic resolution.

As tensions flared, the ASEAN member nations played a crucial role in mediating between Malaysia and the Philippines. Despite initial disagreements, Malaysia and the Philippines agreed in 1968 to restore diplomatic relations and refrain from further discussing the Sabah issue. The Philippines softened its stance, realizing that persistent claims might strain its relations with other ASEAN nations. President Marcos’ announcement in 1977 that the Philippines would no longer pursue the Sabah claim solidified the commitment to regional harmony within ASEAN.

The Sabah dispute stands as a testament to the complexities of Southeast Asian history and the diplomatic challenges in the region. Through a series of historical events, shifting political control, and diplomatic efforts, Malaysia and the Philippines navigated a delicate path to restore relations. The ASEAN framework played a pivotal role in mediating conflicts and fostering regional solidarity, underscoring the importance of dialogue and cooperation in resolving complex international disputes.