Malaysia: Victory in Sulu case shows we were right to protect sovereignty

Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia: Victory in Sulu case shows we were right to protect sovereignty A Malaysian soldier monitors the area where troops stormed the camp of an armed Filipino group, in Lahad Datu, Sabah, Malaysia, March 7, 2013.
[Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters]

A Paris court’s ruling upholding Malaysia’s challenge of a U.S. $15 billion arbitration award to an erstwhile sultanate’s purported heirs proves the government was right to defend the country’s sovereignty, the foreign minister said Wednesday.

A day earlier, the Paris Court of Appeal found that the arbitrator who ordered the Malaysian government to make the payment did not have jurisdiction in the case to do with a colonial-era land deal in the Southeast Asian nation.

“The decision by the French Court yesterday has given a landmark victory to Malaysia, showing that the case brought by Malaysia and defending our rights was right all along, while the case brought by the other party is an attempt made for specific interests only,” Foreign Minister Zambry Abdul Kadir told media outside the Parliament.

A group of eight Filipinos claiming to be heirs of the erstwhile Sultan of Sulu, in February 2022 won a nearly $15 billion arbitration award against Malaysia from a French court. They won the award on the basis that the Southeast Asian nation had in 2013 stopped making annual payments to the purported heirs as they were supposed to under a deal dating back to the 19th century.

The former Sultanate of Sulu was based in a small archipelago in the far southern Philippines, part of which is now in Sabah, an oil-rich state in the Malaysian part of Borneo island.

Last July, the Paris Court of Appeal issued a stay on that arbitration ruling because its enforcement could infringe on Malaysian sovereignty. The self-proclaimed Sulu heirs contested the suspension but the court upheld the stay in March.

Meanwhile, the Sulu claimants, represented by Co-counsel Paul Cohen, said they were disappointed with the Tuesday ruling adding they would review their options, and pursue the case before the French Supreme Court.

In an email to BenarNews, Cohen also criticized Malaysia’s approach to the case.

“In the course of this dispute, we have occasionally struggled to convince international courts that Malaysia’s attitude to civil litigation and arbitration could be so abusive. But recently the Malaysian government has shamelessly chosen to demonstrate this abuse, in extreme terms, at home and internationally,” the U.K.-based attorney wrote.

“Malaysia seems determined to torpedo any reputation it might have for respecting civil law and its procedures, let alone the responsible limits of its criminal justice system.”

Cohen was referring to how Malaysia, in April, had named one of the eight litigants, Fuad A Kiram, a terrorist, citing his alleged involvement in a 2013 attack on the country. 

A Malaysian official had publicly acknowledged that naming Fuad Kiram a terrorist wasn’t entirely about that decade-old attack, but was about going “on the offensive” against the group eyeing Malaysia’s assets.

Last July, Malaysian state oil firm Petronas received seizure orders on two of its units in Luxembourg, as the purported Sulu heirs attempted to enforce the arbitration award.

Malaysia is also dealing with applications made by the Sulu claimants to seize national assets in the Netherlands and government representatives are scheduled to attend those court hearings at the end of June and in September.

Some Malaysians helped claimants?

Law and Institutional Reform Minister Azalina Othman Said, meanwhile, said on Wednesday that several Malaysians were believed to be helping the purported heirs of the Sulu sultanate in pursuing their claims.

“We are gathering evidence. From what I have learnt, we suspect there are Malaysians who are helping the claimants,” Azalina said at the press conference before the foreign minister spoke.

“Once we have sufficient evidence, I will get the director-general of my department to track down these people,” she added, but did not disclose the number of Malaysian individuals allegedly involved. 

Additionally, Malaysia is preparing to take legal action against the company funding the legal efforts of the purported Sulu heirs, the law minister said. 

“We have identified the funders. They are not Asian. But to safeguard Malaysia’s sovereignty, we will sue them,” she said. 

A British global litigation fund called Therium Capital Management Ltd. is backing the purported Sulu heirs. However, Malaysia has not disclosed the identities or origin of the funders, or details regarding its planned action against them. 

On social media, Malaysians applauded the government’s victory in its challenge of the award.

Yoichi Yoi said on Facebook that she hoped the Malaysian government would sue the purported heirs of the defunct sultanate and hold them accountable for the 2013 invasion – they have consistently denied their involvement. 

“Because their heirs initiated the invasion of Sabah, carried out attacks, and caused the deaths of Malaysian citizens, it is appropriate to hold them accountable. Show that Malaysia has sovereignty,” she wrote. 

Another social media user, Hafizuddin Hahir, urged Malaysia to increase security as he feared potential retaliation following the government’s legal victory. 

“The security forces need to be on high alert,” he said on Twitter.

“With the defeat [in] Sulu [case], they may become angry and launch another attack. I hope they stay away.”


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