04/01/2023, 11.17
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Kuala Lumpur and 'heirs' of the Sultanate of Sulu in endless legal battle

by Hal Swindal

The tangled history dates back to an 1878 agreement between the sultan of a territory that stretched between Borneo and the Philippines and two European merchants. Malaysia in 2013 suspended payments due to an attack in 2013 and is refusing to pay the billion owed to the suitors, who began targeting the overseas assets of Petronas, the state oil company.

Kuala Lumpur (AsiaNews) - The Minister of Law in the Prime Minister's Department, Datuk Seri Azalina binti Othman Said, announced a series of measures against the "heirs" of the Sultanate of Sulu after Luxembourg earlier this month issued a seizure notice against overseas assets belonging to Petronas, Malaysia's state-owned oil company.

Since 2019, Sulu's self-proclaimed heirs, now Filipino citizens, have been seeking billions of dollars in compensation from Malaysia, which stopped payments in 2013 following an attack by their supporters in Sabah State. 

Last year, the Paris Court of Appeal had ordered Malaysia to pay about billion to Sulu's suitors, who seized Petronas assets in Europe. The seizure at first was upheld by European courts but has now been suspended.

The tangled history of Sulu's claim dates back to an 1878 agreement made by the then sultan of Sulu-whose lands stretched from the southern Philippines to what is now the Malaysian state of Borneo, Sabah-with two European merchants. The sultan of Sulu agreed to cede his lands in northern Borneo to them in exchange for an annual payment.

At a more technical level, some experts say the dispute stems from different translations of the 1878 agreement in Spanish, Malay and English. The original agreement clearly used the term "cede," not "lease," meaning that legal attacks by Sulu's current claimants on the Malaysian government by striking Petronas' assets would be illegitimate.

Malaysia continued to pay Sulu's heirs about 5,300 ringgits per year (equivalent to ,200) after Sabah's incorporation into the Federation of Malaysia in 1963 and only suspended them after an attack by supporters of a self-proclaimed heir of Sulu in 2013, in which a number of citizens and members of law enforcement were killed.

Sabah residents themselves reject Sulu's claims, declaring them null and void after their vote to join the federation.

Minister Datuk Seri Azalina announced in early March that Malaysia's former attorney general, Sri Tommy Thomas, will be banned from commenting further on Sulu's claim after publishing a note explaining the case. Thomas had sent a letter to Sulu's claimants in 2019 that was not approved by the cabinet at the time.

According to the minister-who announced investigations to see whether any citizens supported the legal assault on Petronas or whether Sulu's heirs had ties to the Royal Sulu Forces terrorist group-the Sulu claimants should have gone to the International Criminal Court in The Hague rather than resort to commercial arbitration. The minister also pointed out that the French courts are delaying the decision to award Petronas' French holdings to Sulu's "heirs" pending Malaysia's official response.

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