The Sultanate of Sulu, the lost realm that could spark international crisis

Sultanate of Sulu
The flag of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Although the Philippines might not have been at war with a neighbour since the 1940s, there are some potential conflicts waiting in the wings. 

The Sultanate of Sulu might sound like some tropical paradise ruled by a rich Sultan with gold toilet seats, but the 2019 reality is somewhat different.


The sultanate of Sulu was founded as a Muslim nation in 1402 by Paduka Mahasari Maulana al Sultan Sharif ul-Hashim, to give him his full-blown regal title, and at its height ruled much of Borneo, Mindanao and even parts of Palawan.

Things sloughed on as they did in the region until 1915 when the regional colonialists of the time, Spain, Britain, Holland, France, Germany and eventually the USA, signed something that took away all the Sultan’s land and power. But this wasn’t the end of the story.

Sultanate of Sulu
The Sultanate of Sulu stretched across what today is the Philippines and Malaysia.

In 1962, things started to get complicated when the government of the Philippines recognised the “existence” of the Sultanate. 


This renewed interest occurred because the Sultanate of Sulu — and thus the successor state of The Philippines — claimed part of Malaysian Borneo, the state of Sabah. 

The dispute was settled fairly amicably with Malaysia paying an annual “rent” to the heirs of the Sultanate of $1,710 a year. 

However, as recently as 2011, the government of the Philippines stated it still claimed Sabah as part of its territory. It also said that it reserves the right to “bring the matter up” in future, although what that means in practical terms is anyone’s guess. 


As of 2016 there were five claimants to the empty throne of Sulu. Amazingly they get on quite well, and arrange the odd family get-together. They all agree that Sulu definitely was — and kind of still is — a nation in its own right. They also support the federalist agenda of President Duterte as means to further the culture of their Sultanate. 

So mostly things have been all nice, and nothing like the MILF in Mindanao, except for the 2013 Lahad Datu Standoff. This was when 235 militants invaded Sabah from the Philippines. 

The group, calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”, was sent by Jamalul Kiram III, one of the five claimants to the throne of Sulu. 

The general idea was to finally settle the territorial dispute, although (as you can imagine) the governments of the Philippines, and Malaysia were not inclined to go to war over the affair. 

The siege eventually lasted six weeks, and resulted in the deaths of 56 militants, six civilians and 10 Malaysian security personnel. The 1/5 Sultan who sent the militants to their doom was not harmed, nor arrested, although he did die later that year as a free man. His family have stated that they will again, at some point, try to retake Sabah, to which the Malaysians pretty much replied: “Come on then, we’ll be waiting”.

The other claimants to the throne insisted that the invasion had nothing to do with them, and that he was a fake Sultan anyway. 

As of today, there’s still no decision on who is the true Sultan, and Sabah remains a rather nice piece of Malaysia. However, who knows? If one of the Sultans flashes enough gold, maybe the president will go there on his Jet-Ski to claim back what is rightly his… or rather the Sultan of Sulu’s.

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