Malaysia’s call

International attention turned to the French arbitral court’s order for Malaysia to compensate $14.9 billion to the Sulu Sultanate, which is the second biggest arbitration case ever after the $50-billion Yukos award against the Russian Federation.

The government, likely as a result of the sharp perspectives available to President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr., maintained its distance from the legal fray, saying that what is being disputed is a private matter.

Former defense secretary Gilbert Teodoro supported the position, saying the government’s involvement may only bolster Malaysia’s position that the arbitral case involved sovereignty.

Invoking that premise, the Kuala Lumpur government obtained an injunction with the French court of appeals against the international tribunal’s ruling.

Malaysia is key to preventing a protracted legal tussle, according to a ranking member of the Sulu Sultanate.

“Malaysia should undertake the honorable and just response by accepting the verdict and make amends to the Sabah heirs,” the member of the royal family said.

He added, “Being an Islamic state, I am still hoping that Malaysia will show the world that Islam promotes, practices and provides true justice by reasonably settling what is due to their Muslim brothers in the Sultanate of Sulu.”

The dispute revolved around the 1878 deal in which trading house British North Borneo Co. signed a deal with Sultan Jamal Al Alam of Sulu to lease Sabah, an agreement that independent Malaysia honored until 2013, paying the monarch’s descendants about P70,000 a year.

After 144 years of religious remittances, Malaysia halted payments after the 2013 Lahad Datu incursion in which more than 50 people were killed.

Lawyer Paul Cohen, lead co-counsel for the Sultan’s heirs from British law firm 4-5 Gray’s Inn Square, described the Sultanate’s Sabah claim as “a fascinating and unusual case.”

Lawyers of the heirs argued that the 19th century deal was a commercial lease, which made it the subject of arbitration.

They also claimed compensation for the vast energy reserves that have since been discovered in Sabah.

Former prime minister Najib Razak admitted ordering the halt in the payments due to public anger over the incursion.

Then attorney general Tan Sri Tommy Thomas ceded that Malaysia erred in stopping payments and offered to resume the annual lease and pay the arrears and interest since 2013.

In turn, the lawyers of the Sultanate used Thomas’ offer as proof that Kuala Lumpur recognizes its obligation to the Sabah landlord.

It was a fatal mistake since the international tribunal said stopping payments constituted a breach of the 1878 deal, which required Malaysia to pay all its arrears to the Sultanate.

The court granted portions of the foregone benefits of the Sulu heirs.

A fair resolution of the inescapable call for historical accountability now requires Malaysia to do its part.

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