Revival of the Office of North Borneo Affairs

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The Kingdom of Sulu – its equally correct but more precise name being the Royal Sultanate of Sulu – is a traditional Islamic monarchy of the Tausug people; a nation, both historical and extant, which currently continues its existence under the supreme authority of the Republic of the Philippines. Among the princes and chiefs of the Filipino first nations, the Sovereigns of Sulu are considered as the premier traditional monarchs; and their royal dignity and the style of Majesty, uncommon for the Malay sultans, has been indisputably recognized for centuries.

Apart of the island of the same name, the Sultanate’s territory includes various islands and districts in and around the Sulu Sea. The Sultan­-King enjoys also supreme sovereign rights over the north of Borneo, a province currently lent to Malaysia and administered as the state of Sabah.

The Realm’s Pre­history

The legend – realistic, largely supported by evidences, and mostly reliable – tells that the Sultanate’s immediate predecessor, Raja Baginda, a relatively peaceful conqueror from Sumatra, introduced many novelties in Sulu in the 1390­’s, including the centralised power of a supreme monarch, the elephants, and – most significantly – Sunnite Islam. Shortly prior to Baginda’s arrival, Islam was preached in the region by the great missionary, Karim­ul Makdum, but the local (probably Hinduist) customs and rituals of the local communities were generally maintained until the Raja embraced monotheism. Baginda had no male heir and his dominion became a dowry of his daughter, Princess (Dayang­ Dayang) Paramisuli. It is believed that Paramisuli’s mother was herself a heiress to a prominent local chief.

The Hashemite Dynasty

The man who married Paramisuli was Sayyid Abu Bakr Abirin, a nobleman, a lawyer and a theologian. As his title of Sayyid suggests, he belonged to the direct posterity of Prophet Mohammad, namely of its Hashemite branch. A son of a Mecca­ born Arab father (and, according to some authors, of a Malay princess), Abu Bakr was raised in Johore, being no stranger to the East Indian region. Baginda appointed Abu Bakr as his heir and made him a chief judge in matters temporal and spiritual. On his accession, Abu Bakr was able not only to maintain the centralized power achieved by his father-­in-­law, but to develop it considerably, and to establish a Sultanate – a theocratic monarchy in which he was a sacred ruler, both a sovereign and a religious leader, a “Paduka Mahasari Maulana alSultan Sharif­ul­Hāshim”. This occurred in 1457. Since then, the Sultanate of Sulu remains a joint entity, temporal and spiritual alike, a phenomenon actually well­ known to Christian Europe, and sometimes defined as persona mixta. Among Abu Bakr’s temporal reforms, the territorial repartition is particularly telling of his power: it divided the island into five districts and included all the sea­shore as well as the vast territory around the residence into the immediate domain of the Sultan. The Sultanate extended its influence far away from the shores of the island of Sulu and became a mighty maritime power. Its power and influence was effective on short and long distances, as it was wittily illustrated by the later Sulu badge, a kris and a spear.

It was already under Abu Bakr’s sons, Sultan Kamal ud­Din and Ala ud­Din, that the Tausugs faced the European expansion, but for long they were able to oppose it. From time to time the Europeans invaded the territory of the Sultanate and even the capital city of Jolo was captured several times, but the Tausug state persisted. It seemed for a while that the Jesuit missionaries succeeded in Sulu; Sultan Alim Uddin was benevolent to them and even was baptised in 1750, becoming King Ferdinand I of Sulu. However he faced both opposition of his relatives and compatriots and, more decisively, the attitude of the Spanish commanders by whom he was detained and imprisoned shortly afterwards. When the Sultan regained the freedom and the throne (with the assistance of English troops), he preferred to act henceforth as the jihad­performing “Amir ul­Muminin” (the Lord of the [Mohammedan] Faithful) and today is famous among the Tausugs under that name.

Both Ali mud­Din and his son Sultan Israel faced growing instability within the Sultanate and within the Royal House, dramatically provoked by exterior pressure. Since their reigns, the traditional line of succession was interrupted several times, for political reasons, by various “anti­-Sultans” (members of the dynasty’s younger branches or even of related families), but at the same time these deviations helped to regularise the dynastical doctrine and to make the lawful inheritance of the throne more linear. Sultan Jamal ul­Kiram (died in 1844) was the first to use the name “Kiram”; his posterity became the Royal branch of the Sulu Hashemites, the Sovereign House as such, and from him descended all the posterior legitimate Sultans. It is worth mentioning that this Sultan was the first known historian of his nation; he collected various legends and tales, reliable and rather fantastic alike, and dictated this unique compilation to his councillor.

Sultan Jamalul Kiram II

Vassal Status

Due to the wars and the conquests, the regional and inter­regional trade routes changed radically, diminishing considerably the Sultanate’s former importance. The ports controlled by the Europeans, the use of steamboats and the continuous warfare deprived the fleet and the harbours of the Tausugs of their former importance; as a result, for a while most of the Tausug maritime energy was accumulated by local piracy rather than by the regular trade. In 1851, after a successful raid of General Urbiztondo, Sultan Mohammad Pulalun was forced to sign a pact which turned the Sultanate into a vassal state, incorporated into the Spanish monarchy. In accordance to the Spanish text of the pact, the Sultan ceded his sovereign rights to Spain; the Tausug text was much more moderate and merely acknowledged the supreme sovereignty of Spain, leaving the Sultan’s exclusive prerogatives intact. The tension continued and the Spanish occupied, after a dramatic siege and battle, the Sultanate’s capital Jolo in 1876, but even this did not terminate – either de facto or de jure – the vast autonomy of the Kingdom­-Sultanate.

Subsequently, Spain transferred its rights and claims to the USA, and the bilingual trick from 1851 was repeated, intendedly or not, by the American representatives when the Bates Agreement was signed by Sultan Jamalul ­Kiram II. This agreement was, however, unilaterally abrogated by the USA, leaving the Sultan (despite his strong protests) and the Sultanate in a significantly worse position. The American attempt to colonise the region effectively led to the “Moro rebellion”. The war resulted in most tragic events and immense human losses. In 1915, a new agreement was signed. Actually Jamalul ­Kiram II was forced by the American governor Frank W. Carpenter to resign the lion’s share of his powers and prerogatives in the USA’s favour, and to accept direct American administration in Sulu. However, contrary to what was proudly announced by Carpenter, the pact did not deprive the Sultan of all his temporal powers. It should be understood that Carpenter, an able and non-­hostile administrator, was opposed in his essentially peaceful plans by many war-­minded officials, and in the dispute with them he had many reasons to exaggerate the new pact’s significance. The Sultan’s religious role was confirmed, not affected nor his fons honorum rights, by the pact.

The reign of Jamalul ­Kiram II continued under both American and Filipino governments until his death in 1936, when Manila decided to ignore the existence of the Sultanate altogether, and denied recognition, let alone any patronage, to the new Sultan, Muwallil Wasit II. This imprudent governmental decision was followed by the latter’s murder and resulted in further political entropy and a new dynastic schism.

During World War II, there were two active claimants to the Kingship, one being supported by Japan and another opposing the Japanese occupation; none of them was of the Kiram Royal stem. The latter was however restored in the person of the then legitimist heir, Mohammad Esmail Kiram I (Muwallil Wasit’s son), in 1950.

This restoration was formally recognized by the Republic of the Philippines in 1957, 1962 and 1974, as the government in Manila gradually became interested in Sulu affairs, partly due to the North Borneo dispute, and partly because of the growing radical attitude in the autonomist and separatist Moro movements, to which the traditional monarchist establishment seemed (and largely was and still is) a plausible alternative.

The Historic Palace of the Sultans

The North Borneo Problem

In 1675, the throne of the neighbouring realm of Brunei was disputed and the Sultan of Sulu was asked to settle the conflict as an arbiter; when the negotiations proved useless, the Sultan used his army in favour of one of the claimants. He helped to stop the civil war and was generously rewarded with the northern part of Kalimantan (Borneo). It was in 1878 that the then Sultan, Jamal ul­A’Lam, looking for a political balance in the region, granted this part of the Sultanate on lease to Europeans. With time, North Borneo became a British crown colony and then was incorporated into Malaysia as the province of Sabah. The Sultan remained the de jure supreme sovereign of North Borneo and continued to receive the annual fee as established by the initial agreement. It is worth mentioning that the Sultan’s rights were confirmed by judicial and governmental acts in Sabah and Malaysia, and that neither the Bates Agreement nor the Carpenter Agreement affected these royal rights in any way, because the U.S.A. explicitly declined from interfering in this delicate matter. Numerous influential Filipino politicians, to the opposite, considered North Borneo a part of the Sultanate of Sulu and thus a dominion of the Philippines. Thus the claim to Sabah appeared depending on the Sultanate’s existence. To obtain the formal recognition of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu by Manila (which implied a chance to reestablish the Tausug autonomy), Sultan Mohd. Esmail twice (in 1962 and in 1969) signed acts of cession of North Borneo to the Republic, but as the latter failed to implement the practical provisions of these acts, such as to claim the province effectively, both these acts appeared void. The North Borneo case remains a complicated legal as well as political problem. Malaysia continues to pay the rent to this day.

The Current State of the Kingdom

In 1974, Sultan Mohd. Esmail died and was duly succeeded by his son and heir Mohammad Mahakuttah Kiram. The accession of the new Sultan was solemnly recognised by the Filipino President, under whose act Manila acknowledged not only the personal status of the Sultan-King but also the formation of the government of Sulu. Presidential representatives attended the coronation of H.M. Sultan Mahakutta on 24th May 1974. On this occasion, Mahacutta’s son and heir – H.R.H. Datu Muedzul Lail – was installed (and formally recognized by the Filipino state) as the Raja Muda (Prince Royal and heir apparent).

Sultan Mahakutta passed away in 1986 when the political situation in the Philippines was profoundly different; the power passed from Ferdinand Marcos to an experiment minded leader, Corazón Aquino, the perspectives were uncertain, and the political instability in the Moroland was growing dramatically. Manila declined from supporting the new Head of the Royal House. Young Raja Muda Muedzul Lail was advised neither to arrange a coronation without recognition from Manila, nor to throw the Crown into the struggle between the secessionists and the adherents of the Republic. Therefore Muedzul Lail preferred to remain, temporarily, a Raja Muda and H.R.H. instead of assuming the title and style of the Sultan-King, although it was understood that this decision, according to the Sulu customs, deprived him neither from the Headship of the Sultanate nor from the ruler’s prerogatives.

The Coronation of Mahakuttah Kiram as the Sultan of Sulu in 1974

Raja Muda (Crown Prince) Muedzul­ Lail Tan Kiram succeeded his late father Sultan Moh. Mahakuttah A. Kiram as 35th Sultan of Sulu Island of Jolo, Sulu, on September 16th, 2012. Raja Muda Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram was proclaimed as Sultan of Sulu by Rumah Bichara (council of elders), bangsa Suluk (people of Sulu) and bangsa Sabah (people of Sabah; previously known as North Borneo). The proclamation ceremonies took place in historical coronation site in Maimbung, island of Jolo, Sulu on the 15th and 16th of September. The ceremony was conducted by Imam (worship leader of the Muslim community) Jamiul Jasim who was appointed as Imam already by Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram’s grandfather Sultan Moh. Esmail E. Kiram. In accordance with Sulu tradition, Sultan Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram named his eldest son Moh. Ehsn S. Kiram as his Raja Muda and heir. The new Sultan was warmly welcomed by Hon. Hussin U. Amin, Mayor of Jolo, Sulu.

Coronation Programme in 1974