Sabah and the Bangsa Moro

copyright 2Jamal Ashley Abbas

All these news on TV, newspapers and online about Sabah and the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim made me organize my thoughts on Sabah. The first time I heard about Sabah, I was about 8 or 9 years old. I have two sisters and one brother who were born in Jolo. The older sister was named Alnahar Mobina Fatima and her godmother was Dayang Dayang Putli (Princess) Tarhata Kiram, who at that time was the Pangyan (Sultana) of Sulu. My mother said that Princess Tarhata promised her that if they’d get back Sabah, she would give her goddaughter a big piece of it.

Princess Tarhata Kiram holding my sister, Alnahar Mobina Fatima during my sister's baptism (paggunting). At the center is Sultan Zein ul Abidin II and on his right is my mother, Sitti Rahma Yahya-Abbas
Princess Tarhata Kiram holding my sister, Alnahar Mobina Fatima during my sister’s baptism (paggunting). At the center is Sultan Zein ul Abidin II and to his right is my mother, Sitti Rahma Yahya-Abbas

Not long after hearing this from my mother, the news on TV and the papers was all about Sabah and the young Moros who were massacred in Corregidor Island near Manila. The incident is now known as the Jabidah Massacre.

It was the first time that I saw my brothers, who were student/youth leaders, on TV denouncing the government. One time, my eldest brother, Macapanton, Jr. came to the house to be interviewed by a TV crew. (He was then staying at UP.) While he was being interviewed, the phone rang. There was something wrong with the phone such that when somebody called, it would ring but even if somebody answered it, it continued to ring. The maids covered the phone with pillows to muffle the sound. When we watched the newscast in the evening, we could hear the phone ringing.

From then on, I got used to seeing my brothers, especially the eldest, on TV or read about them in the papers. Because of his anti-government stance, Macapanton, Jr was ordered arrested when Marcos suspended the writ of habeas corpus and again when Marcos declared Martial Law.

During Martial Law, Marcos recognized Mahakutah Kiram as the Sultan of Sulu. I was aghast that a Philippine president got to “choose” the Sultan of Sulu. I asked my mother who was the rightful Sulu sultan. She said that she had just spoken to Dayang dayang Putli Tarhata who told her to tell Jun (my eldest brother), who was then the Moro head of the Presidential Task Force for the Reconstruction and Development of Mindanao, to tell the government that Jamalul was the rightful Sultan, not Mahakuta. I don’t remember if she was referring to Jamal ul Kiram III or Jamal ul Abidin although I think she was referring to Kiram not Abidin. (But, as a teenager, I remember being proud that I shared the same name (Jamal) as two contending Sultans of Sulu, although I found it strange that people called them Jamalul (one word) instead of Jamal ul-Kiram and Jamal ul- Abidin. (At that time, the name Jamal was not common in the Philippines or in the US, unlike now where every other African-American is named Jamal.)

My sister Alnahar and her godmother Dayang dayang Putli Tarhata are long dead, but Sabah is still with Malaysia and the prospects of it going to the Kirams is slim.


While the Makaskie decision in 1939 clearly gives ownership of Sabah to the Kirams, the granting of Independence to the Philippines and to the Malay states and the formation of the Malaysian federation changed the rules of the game.

Before World War II, the Sultanate of Sulu was recognized by both the US and the UK. The Philippines was a mere territory of the US while North Borneo was a possession of the Sultanate leased to a British company.

I remember the stories my mother told us about Princess Tarhata. She said that when the young princess graduated from a US university, the American authorities gave a party in her honor in Malacanang. Tarhata delighted in telling my mother how the young military officers were trying to make a pass at her. She referred to the military officers as “guardia civil“.

After world war II, the world was turned upside down for the Sulu royals. The Philippines became a newly minted state with Sulu as a mere province. And North Borneo became a British colony and then became part of the newly minted state called Malaysia.

The non-autonomous Sulu sultanate became almost a non-entity and the Sulu royals became relics of a bygone age.


After World War II, the Western colonizers decided to grant their colonies “independence” and simply rule them indirectly by controlling their economies. The Philippines got its independence in 1946. Unbeknownst to the Sulu royals, or to anyone other than the English diplomats, England declared North Borneo a colony.  In his report to the Philippine Government, former Governor General Francis Burton Harrison (acting as Special Adviser on Foreign Affairs), recommended that the British  action “should be promptly repudiated by the Government,” as the British government did it “unilaterally and without special notice to the Sultanate of Sulu nor consideration of their legal rights.”

Meanwhile the kingdoms in the Malay Peninsula got their independence in 1957 and formed the new state of Malaya. The Sulu royals promptly revoked the Lease Agreement of Sabah and demanded the return of Sabah.

In 1961, Datu/Sultan Ombra Amilbangsa, the husband of Pangyan Piandao, Sultana of Sulu, even filed a bill (House Bill No. 5682) in Congress (when he was a congressman) seeking the independence of Sulu. The Sama Datu realized the grim political reality Sulu was facing then.

In 1963, the British and peninsular Malaysians hastily formed Malaysia to be composed of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore.

In the era of newly-minted nation-states, the non-autonomous Sultanate of Sulu has become obsolete. In desperation, the Sulu royals acknowledged its diminished status and asked the Philippine government to act in its behalf. They gave President Diosdado Macapagal a “special power of attorney”, as it were.

New York Times Oct 25 1964
New York Times Oct 25 1964

Macapagal was a friend of the Moros, being a classmate and “barkada” of the first Moro lawyers Sinsuat, Alonto, Pendatun and Abbas.

Macapagal promptly announced the country’s objection to the creation of Malaysia and sent a delegation to London. Later, Macapagal met with President Sukarno of Indonesia, who also objected to the creation of the Malysian nation-state, and Tungku Abdul Rahman of Malaysia.

They called on the United Nations to help settle the issue. The UN created an investigation team that would determine the preferences of the natives of Sarawak and Sabah. And the UN Mission reported that the natives preferred to be with Malaysia. Later on, Indonesia and the Philippines refused to recognize the results of the UN Mission on Borneo.

When Malaysia was formed, it signaled the end of the Sulu sultanate’ hold on Sabah.


According to my late brother Macapanton, Jr, the Grand Mufti of Al-Azhar University was asked to give a fatwa (religious “legal” opinion based on Islamic doctrines) on Sabah. The Grand Mufti’s fatwa states that Sabah, being a state with Muslim people, cannot be given to the Philippines, which is predominantly Christian.

Thus, the only way for Sabah to be regained by the Sultanate of Sulu would be for Sulu to be independent or part of an independent Moro state.


President Ferdinand Marcos, unlike President Macapagal , believes in taking matters into his own hands. In 1967, Marcos hatched a plan to infiltrate Sabah with Army-trained Muslims from Sulu (including Tawi-Tawi and Basilan). It was called Operation Merdeka (Freedom). First part of the training was done in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi

For the second part of the training, the recruits were shipped off to Corregidor island, near Manila. When the young Moros learned what their mission was all about; i.e., to infiltrate Sabah and fight the Sabahans, they started having second thoughts about the mission.

Fighting their fellow Muslims did not seem to be palatable to the recruits. It seems like it came to a point where the leaders –  Project Leader Manuel Syquio  and Operations Officer Maj. Eduardo Abdul Latif Martelino were the ground leaders — decided that the case was hopeless. The young Moro recruits to the Jabidah Unit of the Armed Forces of the Philippines were massacred. It has never been determined how many died. Estimates range from 28 to 200.sabah news 1968

Jibin Arula survived the massacre by pretending to be dead. He was wounded in the knee. He swam in the sea and held on to a piece of driftwood until some fishermen saw him and brought him to a nearby province, Cavite.

Naturally, Arula’s story hogged the headlines. What came to be known as the Jabidah Massacre has crystallized in the minds of the Moros, both young and old, that they have to do something if they still want to survive as a nation distinct from the Christian majority.

The seed of the Bangsa Moro revolution has been unwittingly planted by Marcos with the Jabidah Massacre.  And Sabah is part and parcel of that revolution because Sabah is the ultimate cause of the Jabidah Massacre and the Moros can take back Sabah if and only if there will be a Muslim Moro nation-state, in accordance with the fatwa and realpolitik.


Perhaps because of the fiasco that was Jabidah, Marcos decided to take full control of Mindanao. For the 1969 elections, he talked with the Christian leaders in Mindanao. He told them to run for political office – mayor, governor, etc., thereby challenging the Moro datus. He secretly promised them the three Gs – guns, goons and gold. Up to that time, the Christian settlers were content to be political followers, not leaders.

Ironically, our family campaigned vigorously for Marcos and his team. My brother-in-law was a senatorial candidate.  My mother went with Marcos’s mother all over the country to campaign. She brought Dona Josefa Marcos all over Mindanao, including Jolo, Sulu. At that time, Sulu was already considered a dangerous place. Even Ferdinand and Imelda Marcos did not campaign there. As a child, I joined my mother in her campaign sorties to Davao and Lanao.

And after the elections, all hell broke loose in Mindanao. The Christian political leaders won.  Shortly thereafter, Christian vigilante groups, secretly aided by the military, started attacking Moro villages, killing scores of Moros including women and children. The  llaga (Rats) movement was founded in Cotabato City by the newly elected Mayors Wenceslao de la Cerna of Alamada, Nicolas Dequina of Midsayap, Pacifico de la Cerna of Libungan, Bonifacio Tejada of Mlang, Conrado Lemana of Tulunan, Jose Escribano of Tacurong, Esteban Doruelo of Pigkawayan and PC Capt. Manuel Tronco of Upi. They called themselves the “Magnificent Seven.” Later, Lt. Col. Carlos B. Cajelo, also an Ilonggo, joined the group. He became Governor of Cotabato and later the Deputy Defense Minister for Civil Relations. He was believed to be the actual leader of the Ilagas. ILAGA is supposed to be an acronym for Ilonggo Land Grabbers Association.

The Ilagas went on a rampage in Mindanao, covertly supported by the Armed Forces of the Philippines. The Moros had to defend themselves. Armed groups known as Black Shirts, Baracudas, etc erupted everywhere in Mindanao. The Maguindanaon political families formed the PUSA (Cat) to fight the ILAGAS (Rats).

In the 1971 elections, more Christians came into political power led by Col. Cajelo . Cajelo was a newcomer in Cotabato. He went up against a very popular governor (Datumanong) who was supported by a very powerful traditional politician (Pendatun). But Marcos made sure that Cajelo won. And the Moros realized that there were now more Christian Filipinos than Moros in Moroland.

While the fighting in Mindanao raged, my mother’s cousin Congressman Rashid Lucman of the older generation and my eldest brother Macapanton Abbas, Jr. of the younger generation laid down the foundation for letting the world know of what was happening in Mindanao.

Working hand in hand, Lucman and Abbas, Jr. created several militant organizations like the National Coordinating Council for Islamic Affairs (NACCIA) and the Union of Islamic Forces (UIFO). They formed the Bangsa Moro Liberation Front (BMLF) and arranged with Tun Mustapha of Sabah the training of Moro revolutionaries.

My brothers Firdausi and Macapanton, Jr. published and edited the Dawat-ul-Islam newsletter in Manila. It reported the massacres happening in Mindanao so people in Manila, especially people of foreign embassies, are made aware of them.

My brother Macapanton, Jr brought the Bangsa Moro issue to the Organization of Islamic Conference (OIC) when he submitted to then OIC head Tungku Abdul Rahman reports of Philippine atrocities against the Bangsa Moro people. The OIC took cognizance of the Bangsa Moro issue and Libya promised funding.

The training of the Moro revolutionaries was done in Sabah. The first batch of 90 trainees included Nur Misuari, Hashem Salamat and Abul Khayr Alonto.

But the Moro revolution was sabotaged from the beginning. The 90 trainees in Sabah, through the instigation of the Libyan Foreign Minister, proclaimed themselves the leaders of the Bangsa Moro revolution, calling their group, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF)

Fighting continued to rage in Mindanao. Arms came in from abroad, but only to those willing to support the MNLF. While not all fighters were MNLF, the Philippine media labeled all Moro groups fighting as MNLF.

Marcos sued for peace. The Tripoli Agreement was signed but never truly implemented.

In 1977,  Hashem Salamat and his clique wanted to form their own group and bolt out of the MNLF. Mohammad Natsir, former Prime Minister of Indonesia and Inamullah Khan of Pakistan tried to unite the Moro forces. A meeting was held in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. The Bangsa Moro Liberation Organization (BMLO) leaders Rashid Lucman, Salipada Pendatun and my brother Jun Abbas were there as well as Senator Domocao Alonto of the Ansar el Islam.  And so were Hashem Salamat and his lieutenants. The women sector delegation was led by Gov. Tarhata Alonto-Lucman and my sister Hadja Potri Zorayda Abbas-Tamano, the wife of Senator Tamano. Some of Misuari’s colleagues attended the meeting.

Fortunately for me, the Unity Meeting happened during school break (‘Id al Adha vacation) so I was able to attend it. Unfortunately, nothing came of that Unity meeting. In fact, a few months afterwards, Hashem Salamat bolted out of MNLF and formed his own group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Our cousin Ustaz Jamil Yahya was one of the co-founders of MILF.

The rest, they say, is history.


The end of the 20th-century Bangsa Moro revolution came with the death of the leaders. The father of the revolution, Rashid Lucman; the mentor of the revolution, C. Adib Majul; the spirit (spiritual head) of the revolution, Hashem Salamat and the brain of the revolution, Macapanton Abbas, Jr. are all dead. The internationally recognized “head” of the revolution, Nur Misuari is politically dead.

The Bangsa Moro revolution is over, for now. The Bangsa Moro territory has been reduced to a paltry size, with only 5 provinces, including one city – Marawi. The so called Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) has been declared by the Supreme Court as non-autonomous. The Supreme Court stated: “Only administrative powers over local affairs are delegated to political subdivisions.” And ARMM is a mere political subdivision.

And so there is a need for Paradigm Change – from revolution to peace talks.


Since the revolution has failed, the prospect of getting Sabah has returned to the hands of the Sulu royals.

In 1989, Sultan Jamal ul Kiram III revoked the “Special Power of Attorney” the sultanate gave to the Philippine government. But he reiterated the Sultanate’s request to the Philippine government to bring up the Sabah issue to the United Nations and other international fora. My brother, Sultan Firdausi Abbas acted as the legal counsel for the Sulu Sultan.

But the response from the Malaysian and Philippine governments was lukewarm.


Sultan Jamal ul Kiram II
Sultan Jamal ul Kiram II

Ever since the death of Sultan Jamal ul Kiram II in the 1930s the Sulu royalty has been disunited.  Then, it was just divided between the so-called Maimbung and the Patikul factions.  Some people call the Maimbung faction as House of Kiram and the Patikul faction as House of Shakirullah. But that is a misnomer.  Dayang dayang Hadja Piandao of the Maimbung faction was the successor of Jamal-ul Kiram II but she was the daughter of Jamal ul Kiram’s brother Badr ud Din II while her rival Pangyan (Sultana) of the Patikul faction was Dayang Dayang Putli Tarhata who was the daughter of Ismail Kiram. Even the grandfather of Sultan Zein ul Abidin (aka Datu Tambuyong) of the Patikul faction was named Jamal ul Kiram. Sultan Jamal ul Kiram II died without issue, and therefore, technically speaking, there is no House of Kiram.

Today, there are at least a dozen pretenders to the throne, some of whom are fakes.  Most of the contenders claim descent from Jamal ul Azam, who leased Sabah to Baron von Overbeck.

It is important to remember that in the Sulu sultanate’s history, succession was never a matter of son inheriting from father. The 11th Sultan, Salah ud Din was followed by his son  Shahab ud Din, who was succeeded by Shahab ud Din’s brother Shafi ud Din, followed by another brother, Badr ud Din. Badr was succeeded by his nephew Nasr ud Din, son of Shahab. Nasr was succeeded by his cousin Azim ud Din I, son of Badr.

Azim ud Din I reigned in the 18th century. He is known in Philippine history as Alimuddin, the first Christian Sultan of Sulu, which is really an historical joke. Azim  ud Din I reigned from 1735-1748. He went to Manila to ask support from the Spaniards against the Taosug datus. Instead, the Spaniards held him hostage for 14 years at Intramuros. It was only when the British invaded Manila that he was able to return to Sulu. His nephew abdicated in his favor. He ruled Sulu for 10 more years.

All the succeeding sultans were descendants of Azim ud Din I. Naturally, most of the pretenders to the Sultanate descended from him.


In 1939, the heirs of Jamal ul Kiram II asked the High Court of North Borneo who were the heirs of the Sulu Sultan Jamal ul Kiram II, who died without issue. They wanted to know who the owners of Sabah were. Was it Great Britain or the Sulu Sultan’s heirs.  Chief Justice CFC Makaskie of the High Court of North Borneo ruled in favor of the petitioners led by the two celebrated Sulu princesses, Dayang dayang Hadja Piandao and Dayang Dayang Putli Tarhata.

The Sultan of Sulu recognized by the US government at that time was Zein-ul Abidin II but he and his clan refused to join the petition in Sabah because they did not give it much importance.

And since in this day and age, the power of written “legal” documents is acknowledged by most of the world, the Makaskie decision is very important.  The claim of the Sultanate must therefore rely heavily on this, plus the Taosug version of the Deed of 1878 or the lease of Sabah to Baron von Overbeck.

Philippines believe in the rule of Force. Marcos tried the Jabidah route. Then he tried an all-out war against the Moros. President Joseph Estrada tried an all-out war against the MILF.  But Malaysia believes in the rule of law. It is much easier to negotiate with Malaysians.


It is imperative that the Sulu royals get their act together. They should have a united Ruma Bechara (Council of Elders). They don’t have to proclaim one Sultan. They can create a “Council of Rulers” or whatever. But it is important that they show a unified front to the Malaysians.

The Malaysians will never negotiate with just one person claiming to be Sultan. At the very least, they  will negotiate with a group representing ALL the descendants of the heirs, including those not named in the so-called Makaskie decision of 1939. The then reigning Sultan, Sultan Zein ul-Abidin II, who was recognized by the American government, did not bother to join the petitioners in the so-called Makaskie decision,

And this is the most important part. They should list down their negotiating points. It is important that they think not only of themselves but also of future generations; and not only of their own progeny, but the future of all Taosugs, of all Bangsa Moro. For this reason, they need the advice of Moro intellectuals and experts on various fields.

They must set up ways to insure that the history of Sulu Sultanate will not be forgotten and the dignity of the Sulu royals will not be trampled upon. There must be investment schemes to insure the prosperity of the Sulu royals and the whole Bangsa Moro for today’s as well as for future generations.

They will have to give up their claim of sovereignty to the Malaysian government but they should get due compensation – not just for themselves but for the whole Bangsa Moro as well. This way, the Bangsa Moro people, including the armed groups would support them.

The royals can then lobby through the OIC and through friends in KL.

It is best to leave the Philippine government alone. This should be between the Moros and the Malaysians.

With Malaysia brimming with wealth, this is the right time to negotiate. But Sabah is not just an issue concerning the Sulu royals. It has been part of the Bangsa Moro revolution. The Malaysians are astute enough to realize that any meaningful resolution to the Sabah issue should include the support of the Bangsa Moro people as a whole.

POSTSCRIPT (March 8, 2013):

After the events in Lahad Datu and the pronouncements of the Malaysian Prime Minister and Philippine President, it is obvious that a deal had already been made between them concerning Sabah with the probable collusion, wittingly or unwittingly, of the MILF.  But the seemingly very brave Najib Razak must realize that Aquino cannot sell Sabah. The real owners of Sabah will, sooner or later, get it back because international laws are on their side.

It is thus imperative that the Sabah issue will be put back within the Bangsa Moro issue. If  MNLF or MILF claim to be representatives of the Bangsa Moro, then they should include Sabah  in whatever peace talks they make with the Philippine government. Otherwise, they would just be representing themselves and not the Bangsa Moro people.

Clearly, in the Sabah issue, the fault lies on USA when it gave Mindanao and Sulu to the Filipinos in 1946 when it gave the Philippine Archipelago its INDEPENDENCE, with Manila getting the centralized power.

From the 1600s, Sulu governed and OWNED Sabah until 1946. On July 4 , 1946 America included Sulu in the new Philippine Republic with Sulu relegated to being a mere province. Just 4 days after the grant of Philippine independence,  England declared North Borneo or Sabah as its COLONY.

And in 1963, England maneuvered that Sabah be included in a new country to be called MALAYSIA.

Because Sulu is not an independent country, it cannot complain to the International Court of Justice. Thus, the Sultanate was forced to transfer its sovereign rights to Philippine Republic. Unfortunately, the republic could not get back Sabah because England refused to do so and the UN could not move contrary to the wishes of England which was a huge power at that time.

Fortunately, the Sultanate revoked the transfer in 1989 because of the Philippines’ inaction and the attempt of President Cory Aquino to drop the Sabah claim.

All the troubles of the Bangsa Moro have its roots in the establishment of the Republic of the Philippines, which included Mindanao, Sulu and Palawan or Moroland. All of a sudden, with a mere stroke of the pen, the proud sultanates of Sulu and Maguindanao, the Rajahnate of Buayan and the Ranao Confederation became mere provinces in a nation-state called the Philippines with all the powers controlled by Imperial Manila.

Without firing a shot, the Indios-turned-Filipinos, servants of the Spaniards for 350 years and wards of the Americans for 50 years, suddenly became Masters of the Philippine Islands with the unconquered Moros reduced to becoming second-class citizens of a corrupt Republic.

If the Moros want to have a decent life, their only choice is crystal-clear.


Related post:   WHO OWNS SABAH?

Marcos “Legalized” Claim to Sabah


6 thoughts on “Sabah and the Bangsa Moro

  1. We, Filipinos need to be united as a nation to protect what is OURS…
    It is unfortunate that our brothers and sister in Sabah (legally owned by the Sultanate of Sulu) are being maltreated to death in our own land…..
    I’m not from Mindanao but I do share the heartaches of my KABABAYAN there!!!
    In some documentaries aired by a well-known networks…. it really hurts to see, why this inhumane maltreatment is happening to them…. “in their own ancestral land.”


  2. Salamat salamat salamat po for this detailed piece of very important narrative.
    Long live the people who just want to live authentic lives.
    I do not support any agenda that is based on greed.
    My heart and mind go out to all who are involved, whose sincerity is genuine.
    I have blood cousins in Marawi City. My aunt’s husband is Maranao and this marriage between a Christian and a Muslim produced a big happy family. Your narrative is important, for our understanding, and for wisdom.
    May you continue to support truth.
    God’s blessings to you.


  3. This is a good post. Very comprehensive on detailing the history of the Bangsamoro

    I wish somehow in the future, we would give our Moro brothers and sisters the privilege they deserved. They are part of this country too. I wish the future president of the Philippines would bring them closer to the capital because until now, Mindanao is still politically and geographically distant to the seat of power in Malacanang.


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