Sulu heirs lost their legal dispute with Malaysia. Malaysia emerged victorious in a legal dispute fought in France. The result is the probable nullification of a $15 billion award regarding territorial claims within Sabah, Malaysia. Sabah is a state in present-day Borneo.
On Tuesday, June 6, the Paris Court of Appeals made a ruling asserting that the arbitration court, which mandated Malaysia to make the aforementioned payment to the self-proclaimed heirs of Sulu (the previous rulers of the region), lacked jurisdiction in this particular case.
The conflict is associated with the longstanding claims made by the heirs of Sulu regarding the state of Sabah. In 1878, the former sultanate leased Sabah to a British company. Subsequently, the Borneo state became part of Malaysia. The Sulu sultanate governed the islands in the Sulu Archipelago, which are presently located within the Philippine region of Mindanao.
Last year, a French Arbitration Court in Paris directed Malaysia to compensate the descendants of Sulu for their claim.
In January, Malaysia submitted an application to the Paris court seeking the cancellation of the award. In the meantime, a Luxembourg court invalidated the legal action payment.
The Sultanate of Sulu gained independence in 1578. It was previously under the influence of the Bruneian Empire. It was ruled by Sultan Jamal Al Alam during the 19th century.
In 1878, Sultan Jamal Al Alam entered into an agreement to lease his territory to Baron de Overbeck, the Maharaja of Sabah, and Alfred Dent of the British North Borneo Company. According to the deal, Overbeck and Dent would have separate control over significant portions of what is now the state of Sabah. The agreement also stipulated the annual payment of 5,000 Mexican dollars to the heirs of the sultan, to be made by Overbeck, Dent, and their respective heirs.
Following the death of the last recognized Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram II, in 1936 without any heirs, there was no one to receive the legally mandated annual payments. In 1939, the North Borneo High Court appointed nine heirs to receive the payments.
When Sabah gained independence and Malaysia was formed in 1963, Malaysia assumed the responsibility for the payment agreement. They paid the heirs an equivalent of RM5,300 per year as a cession payment. This payment served as an “allowance” to the royalty for ceding their land to the Malaysian government. This payment is similar to the allowances paid to royalty in Peninsular Malaysia.
Malaysia continued these annual payments until the Lahad Datu conflict in 2013, also known as the 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff. During this incident, a group of armed followers of Jamalul Kiram III invaded the eastern shores of Sabah. They landed in Pulau Simunul in Tawi-Tawi. Jamalul Kiram III is a Philippine national. He was residing in the Philippines at the time.
This incursion into Sabah escalated into a full-scale military conflict between the Malaysian Armed Forces and the Sulu gunmen. The conflict resulted in a total death toll of 68 individuals. These deaths included 56 Sulu gunmen, nine Malaysian authorities, and six civilians.
During that time, the former prime minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, took the decision to suspend all payments to the “heirs” without any defined period. Consequently, the Malaysian Home Affairs Ministry classified Jamalul Kiram III and his followers as terrorists.
In 2018, the Malaysian general elections saw the victory of the Pakatan Harapan political party. This victory led to the replacement of the previous attorney general with Tommy Thomas. Following this change in government, the Sulu heirs chose to bring the Malaysian government to the international court to challenge the suspension of payments.
Tommy Thomas, serving as Malaysia’s Attorney General, then formally sent a letter to the eight heirs, expressing an apology for the failure to continue the annual payments after the 2013 invasion.
This letter, authored in an official capacity by Tommy Thomas, became the basis for initiating legal proceedings against Malaysia in international courts. The lawyers representing the eight heirs argued that Tommy Thomas’s letter constituted an admission of guilt by Malaysia in the eyes of foreign courts, and it served as evidence supporting the rightful claim of the Sulu to Sabah, refuting the misconception that Malaysia was making rental payments to them.
In March, a Paris court upheld a stay order obtained by Malaysia, preventing the enforcement of the award.