Manila: The Sultan of Sulu in the southern Philippines has claimed that the contested Spratly Island in the South China Sea was part of the ancestral domain of Filipino-Muslims prior to the arrival of the Spanish colonials in the 16th century, a local paper said.

“China has no right over the Spratly Islands in what it calls the South China Sea because that is part of our ancestral domain,” Majaraj Julmuner Jannaral, Sultanate information officer, told the Philippine Star.

The Sultanate of Sulu has had proprietary rights over the Spratlys because Sabah (now part of Malaysia), the Sulu archipelago in the southern Philippines, and Palawan in southwestern Philippines belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu even before the Spaniards colonized the Philippines in 1521, explained Jannaral, a representative of Muhammad Fuad Abdulla Kiram I, the reigning Sultan of Sulu and Sabah (Malaysia’s North Borneo).

In 1658, the Sultan of Brunei gave Sabah, Borneo’s eastern and northern part of Borneo to the Sultan of Sulu who helped the former win a civil war. Sabah was recognized as part of the Sultan of Sulu’s sovereignty (in the Philippines).

On June 22, 1878 (during the Spanish colonial era in the Philippines, Baron Von Overbeck, an Austrian, and Alfred Dent, a Briton, who represented the British East India Co (which became North Borneo Co), forged a lease agreement with Sri Paduka Maulana Al Sultan Mohammad Jamalul Alan (representative of Sulu’s Sultanate), to lease Sabah for 5,000 Malaysian ringgits annually.

The company provided arms to the Sultan of Brunei to resist the Spanish colonials in the Philippines.

“Without the Sultan’s consent, the Spaniards (at the end of their colonial rule) illegally transferred the Philippines, including the Sulu archipelago, Sabah, and Guam to the US when Spain and the US signed the Treaty of Paris in 1898,” said Jannaral. It paved the way for the US colonial era in the Philippines.

When the United Kingdom granted independence to Malaysia in 1963, the Federation of Malaysia was formed. The British North Borneo Co turned over Sabah to the Federation which also included Singapore and Sarawak.

Before this, in 1962, the British colonials initiated a referendum among residents in Sabah who were asked if they wanted to be part of the Malaysian Federation.

The Malaysian government has continued paying the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu the amount that the British North Borneo Co used to pay in the 18th century.

In 1939, Chief Justice Makaskie of the High Court of North Borneo upheld the claims of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, in response to a case filed by the Sultan’s eight heirs.

In 1962, former President Diosdado Macapagal formally claimed Sabah, after Sultan Muhammad Esmail Kiram gave sovereign political right to the Philippine government to pursue the claim.

The same right was extended to ex-dictator Ferdinand Marcos in 1969, Jannaral said. In 1972, Marcos trained several Filipino-Muslims in Corregidor Island, off Manila. His plan was to launch an armed secession in Sabah.

At the time, Malaysian authorities were also helping leaders of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) which waged armed struggle for the secession of Mindanao from the central and northern part of the Philippines. MNLF also wanted to establish an independent Islamic state in Mindanao.

When the trainees learned about Marcos’ plan, they waged a mutiny and were killed. One survived, swam towards Manila, and told authorities what happened to his companions.

The so-called “Jabidah Massacre,” was revealed by former Senator Benigno Aquino in the Senate in the 70s. The incident fired a strong anti-Marcos sentiment, which prompted the president to establish a Martial law rule in 1972.

Since then, the country’s claim over Sabah was never revived. But thousands of Filipino-Muslims have gone to Sabah to work, many of whom have been deported for lack of documents.

“The Spratly Archipelago is part of the Sulu Sea (the inner area around the islands in the southern Philippines, which is part of the West Philippine Sea (the new name of the South China Sea),” Jannaral concluded.

Exploration of the marine territory and the waters around the Spratly Archipelago, Palawan in southwestern Philippines and the southern Philippines, belong to the residents in those areas, he added.

These are hints that the Philippines’ claim in the Spratly Archipelago could be strengthened if the government revives its Sabah claim, political analysts said.

China, Taiwan, and Vietnam claim the whole of the South China Sea.The Philippines, Malaysia, and Brunei claim some parts of the Spratly Archipelago.