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The Sovereign Rights of the King of Sulu1

by Datu Michael Y. Medvedev

More than an island, an archipelago, or a sea: Sulu is a nation, a phenomenon of statehood. Continuing its proud history, Sulus monarch is a reigning Sultan-King, both in the terms of his public prerogatives and his formal title, the use of which has been fully restored following the coronation of the current Sovereign, King Mued I (Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram), on the 16th of September, 2012. Until recently, a poorly informed general public could be forgiven for assuming that the Royal Sultanate of Sulu was a phenomenon of the past, or at best little more than a religious community. The continued existence of this Sultanate, once renowned as the premier nation among the Moro states and principalities, was widely presumed to be incompatible with the realities of the modern world, such as the Philippines republican statehood. Over the years, those who sought more information on the Kingdom of Sulu were led to believe that it had long been legally obsolete, its Sultan allegedly deprived of power by the so-called Carpenter Agreement of 1915. However since 2011, the Sultanate has become, and continues to be, a newsmaker. Not only were the Ruma Bichara (the Curia Regis) and some other state bodies
This papers original version was presented to King Mued I, the Sultan of Sulu, on the day of His Majestys coronation. I am profoundly indebted to Rafal Heidel-Mankoo, a Datu of the Royal Sultanate of Sulu and an internationally known expert, whose insightful and friendly advises enabled me to edit and amend the text.

effectively revitalised, but many steps were made in the sphere of honours. Through several acts issued lately by the last Sultans legitimate heir, new symbols of the Sultanate have been established, the rules referring to the traditional nobility have been revised and confirmed, a dynastical Order has been instituted, several new noble titles have been created, and a number of personal arms have been granted to recipients within as well as outside the Sultanates borders. These actions imply a claim to a status which is not merely regal (which would be a dynastic matter only) but is, in fact, equal to that of the effective rulers. Irrespective of the much-evolved modern fons honorum mythology, no creation of a new honour may be seen as indisputably valid unless it is supported by the authority of the state. Indeed, one of the purposes secondary but still topical of the said acts is to manifest the legal and political existence of the Kingdom, as well as the state prerogatives pertaining to the Sultanates royal head. What follows is an attempt to explain and clarify this point further. It is necessary to stress, however, that the Sultans sovereign rights outside the Filipino border, that is, in relation to North Borneo, will not be discussed here as this sensitive subject is unnecessarily complicated for our purposes. Over the course of its history, the Sultanate had its sovereign rights and prerogatives restricted on several occasions, by accepting the supreme rule of Spain and later of the USA. These restrictions were established by bilingual pacts: with Spain in 1878, and with the USA in

1899 (the latter commonly known as the Bates Treaty). Both acts were flawed due to imprecise and simplified translations. Although the international versions proclaimed the respective conquerors supreme sovereignty over the Kingdom, the Tausug versions of the pacts made no mention of a cession of sovereignty to any foreign power, declaring less radical legal measures instead, such as the creation of a protectorate and a partition of powers and competences. In any case, all versions of the pacts, clearly stated that Sulu was to remain a theocratic monarchy with territory, and its own legal system and administration. In 1904 the USA, seeking to gain more effective control in the area, unilaterally annulled the Bates Treaty, despite the Sultans formal objection. Following this decision the governor of the Moro province, Major General Leonard Wood, started the most difficult and bloodiest period of what is known as the Moro rebellion. In 1915 Frank Carpenter, the governor of the Departament of Mindanao and Sulu, forced Sultan Jamal II to come to Zamboanga with his councellors and to sign there a document (actually an inner Memorandum of the Department) which became known as the Carpenter Agreement. Governor Carpenter was, in a sense, a good colonialist not specifically hostile towards the Moros, he worked hard to replace the military administration in Moroland with a civil one. As his plans and aspirations were frequently opposed in Washington, he sought to achieve some spectacular political successes to support and advertise his programme of reforms. Accordingly,

Carpenter decided to advertise the Memorandum as the Sultans Complete Renunciation of his Pretensions of Sovereignty. Neither these words nor their equivalent appear anywhere in the act itself; but they were used by Carpenter as part of the subheading under which the act was submitted to the Federal Government and later officially published. Aside from these pseudo-official additions to the original text, the Memorandum can hardly be regarded as a complete renunciation or abdication by the Sultan. The document states that the Sultan ratifies and confirms his recognition of the sovereignty of the United States of America and assigned to the USA all the attributes of sovereign government that are exercised elsewhere in American territory and dependencies; but this did not exclude the possibility of retaining the limited sovereignty as in the case of the Indian nations2. In return, the act guaranteed the Sultans position as the head of the Mohammedan Church in the Sulu Archipelago, with all the rights and privileges which under the Government of the United States of America may be exercised by such an ecclesiastical authority, and subject to the same limitations which apply to the supreme

See, for example: Cohen, F.S. Handbook of Federal Indian Law. Washington, DC, 1942, passim. This consideration alone undermines Carpenters sly statement according to which the Sultan renounced of all pretensions to temporal sovereignty through his unqualified recognition of the sovereignty of the United States of America. The unqualified character of the said recognition is yet another cunning mystification. See the Report of the Philippine commissions to the Secretary of War. 1915. Washington, 1916, p.287.

spiritual heads of all other religions existing in American territory3. It is evident that the Memorandum did not deprive the sSultan of those powers, prerogatives and attributes of sovereign government that were not exercised by the USA, such as the powers to create nobiliary honours, or to maintain (at least symbolically) those traditional public offices and titles traditionally regarded as part of the nations traditional establishment. The regal dignity itself, being alien to the American legal system, could not be claimed by the USA, and therefore certainly remained intact. It should be also understood that the traditional Islamic doctrine defines Sultans (as distinct from the Imams, the religious leaders) as sacred rulers, vested with both religious and temporal powers. Within the European context they are to be considered as personae mixtae, largely comparable to the two existing Catholic synthetic legal entities, that either maintained (as did the Holy See between 1870 and 1929), or still maintain (the Sovereign Military Order of Malta) their internationally recognised sovereign status irrespective of losing their territories4. It is obvious that the extrapolation of this principle to the whole Islamic world may go pretty far, but this is no reason to ignore the problem.
Idem, p.297-298. The Memorandum is normally perceived together with the deliberately misleading introduction added by Carpenter; see, for example, the documents publication in a historical monograph: Gowing P.G. Mandate in Moroland. Manila, 1977, app. D.

Of course, historically, a Sultans (or a Caliphs) dual power was indivisible rather than mixed. It could be this factor which made Atatrk so rude and intolerant towards the Caliph in the years 1922-1924, although the Caliphate was considered then as a purely religious position.

Many of the adherents of the legitimate King5, as well as many less loyal Sulu subjects, are advancing other arguments against the validity of the 1915 Memorandum qua a complete renunciation or abdication. It has been explained that an internal document of the Department of Mindanao and Sulu, whether signed by the Sultan or not, was not sufficient to reform or alter the organic norms of Sulu statehood, let alone abolish it. It was also pointed out that the councellors summoned to Zamboanga could not serve as a formal substitution of the Sultans Council (Ruma Bichara); consequently, the Sultan could not execute his supreme power in Council6. These actions must therefore be deemed ultra vires.
HM Sultan-King Mued I (Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram) was crowned on the 16th of September 2012. Over the previous 26 years of his reign, the current Head of the Sultanate had declined a coronation due to political circumstances (including the ambivalent attitude of Manila) and chose instead to exercise royal power under the title of Raja Muda (the Crown Prince), this title had been formally recognized for him by the Republic of the Philippines on the accession of his father.

Despite being close to absolutist in the days of old, the Sultans power always had its restrictions and conditions. He was not usually bound by the decisions reached during the consultations with his Ruma Bichara, but it was absolutely essential that these consultations were asked for, and heard, on any occasion of state importance. Carpenter was aware of this and in his own words the Sultan was called to Zamboanga March 11, 1915, and directed to bring with him his advisers and persons of his immediate confidence to substitute the council (Report of the Philippine commissions to the Secretary of War. 1915. Washington, Government printing office. P. 289); but nothing indicates that such substitution was lawful or desired by the Sultan himself, or that the delegation was sufficiently representative (the act was countersigned by two Datus, one Panglima, and the Sultans secretary; other Moro signatories represented the Department). Even Governor Carpenter himself did not claim that the act was approved by the Ruma Bichara. He wrote: On the part of the Sultan, such witnesses were members of the former cabinet or council of the Sultan and other natives of Sulu whom the Sultan had accompany him in the course of the conferences preliminary to and at the time of the signing of the agreement. See: Report, ibidem.

Attention has been given also to the terminological flaws of the previous treatises; these flaws created precedents that enabled the Sultan to treat the recognition of foreign sovereignty as merely another confirmation of protectorate. Moreover, the loose and legally ambiguous territorial definition cited in the Memorandum (Sulu archipelago) is open to interpretation and, in the terms of 1915, did not encompass some of the minor islands which belonged to the Sultanates periphery. It is worth noting that the survival of the Sultanate was manifested not only by the continued use of the Sultans royal titles and styles, but also by the persistence of the public dignities, titles, offices and ranks which which continued to be used by the Sultanates officials (such as Tuan Panglimas etc). Even Carpenters ardent supporters could not deny it, although they expressed their opinion that no such dignitaries should be appointed in the future7. Jamal II died in 1936. He remained a reigning SultanKing under the American administration, and the autonomous state of the Philippines inherited him in the same capacity. The Filipino autonomy chose to treat the Sultan as a private person (although this was never specified in any formal or legal act) which attitude provoked a painful schism of the Tausug community. It is worth mentioning that during the Second World War, there were two active claimants to the Kingship, one supported by Japan and another opposing the Japanese occupation both were related to the previous rulers but neither of them descended from the Kiram Royal line. However the Kirams continued to be regarded as the principal branch,
Oroza, Sixto Y. 1931. The Sulu Archipelago and Its People. N.Y., Yonkers-onHudson. P.61.

and had been finally restored to the throne in the person of the then legitimist heir, Mohammad Esmail Kiram I (nephew of Jamal II), in 19508. After gaining full independence, the Filipino state failed to acknowledge Sulus special status in its constitution; however the continued existence of the Sultans temporal rights was never in doubt, and the Sultanate was formally recognised by the Filipino acts issued ad hoc, in 1962 and again in 1972. These acts treated the realm as a sort of vassal state within the borders of the Republic. The Sultans royal rank was also confirmed through the manner of styling him as Majesty. These respectful and cordial relations continued in 1974 with the coronation of Sultan-King Mahakutta, father of the current King. The new Sultan was formally greeted by the President, and the coronation was attended by Filipino state representatives. Moreover, the Philippines recognised the formation of the Government of Sulu by the new Sultan9 as well as the immediate succession rights of the Sultans son, HRH Raja Muda Muedzul Lail Tan Kiram (now His Majesty King Mued I). The subsequent political changes in Manila as well as in Mindanao did not affect the validity of these recognitions. None of the aforementioned acts of the Republic implied any grant or concession of rights, rather they
His rights were acknowledged even earlier. He was proclaimed as heir apparent, the Raja Muda (Prince Royal), under the previous effective ruler, Datu Tambuyong (Sultan Jainal Abirin), who thereby renounced his branchs ephemeral claim.

It is worth mentioning that the term Government of Sulu, continuously used in legal documents, was attested in 1910-ies by Governor Carpenter as an expression and recognition of the sovereign rights enjoyed by the Sultan and his nation irrespectively of the Bates treaty as well as the earlier pacts.

instead expressed the states recognition of the Sultanates existing status, and plainly disavowed the entire notion of the complete renunciation in 1915. It is worth mentioning that there is no constitutional obstacle for these Filipino recognitions as well as the representative practices of the monarchy of sulu. There is Art.VI, Section 31, which states that no law granting a title of royalty or nobility shall be enacted, but this can be applied neither to the dynastical titles of Sulu (which have existed from time immemorial and are preserved by the House and the nation) nor to the new creations (which belong to the administrative rather than legislative prerogative of the Sultan-King, being a continuation of a long-established practice). Another quasi-relevant Filipino constitutional principle (Art.II, Section 26) is that The State shall [] prohibit political dynasties as may be defined by law. It is apparent that the norm is aimed against the misuse of the Republican institutions, and that it simply cannot be implemented, even theoretically, unless a legal definition of a political dynasty is established, which so far is not the case. The Filipino legal system, far from being incompatible with the Sultanates ongoing renaissance, offers an opportunity for the preservation and careful development of tindigenous institutions, admitting that the rights of the first nations are inherent rather than delegated by the Republic. This conceptual framework implies a possibility of peaceful development and constructive consensus. Although prior to his coronation, His Majesty King Mued I already acted as a reigning sovereign, a number of his acts issued during this transitional period (such as the


foundation of the Order of the Pearl) received only a partial acknowledgement, often being seen even by connoisseurs as acts of a non-ruling head of a Sovereign House. This opinion was to a certain extent justified whilst the Sovereign of Sulu remained, less than a reigning titular King. The time has come to clarify the situation and the terms. May the coronation of King Mued I elevate his Realm and his people, with its needs, potentials and glorious legacy, to a new level of international recognition.