The Indian Express | 14 March 2023
EU-Malaysia relations at risk over colonial legacy claims
by David Hutt, Deutsche Welle
European bailiffs could soon start seizing Malaysian state-owned property over a land dispute dating back to 1878.
A billion-dollar lawsuit between the heirs of a historic sultanate and the Malaysian government over land awards signed during the era of British imperialism, threatens to further cloud European relations with the Southeast Asian country.
Malaysia already accuses the European Union of infringing upon its sovereignty through environmental policies that will ban imports of palm oil, one of its main agricultural goods, in a case that the World Trade Organization (WTO) is expected to rule on this year.
Kuala Lumpur claims this is mere protectionism from Brussels, while Malaysia’s former minister of Plantation Industries and Commodities, Zuraida Kamaruddin, called the EU’s policy “crop apartheid.”
Despite attempts to kickstart negotiations on a free-trade agreement, relations could be muddied further amid the potential confiscation of Malaysian-owned property in Europe over a 19th century land dispute.
Last year, a French arbitration court ordered the Malaysian government to pay around €15 billion ($16 billion) to the descendants of the Sulu sultanate over an 1878 land deal, although that order has now been put on hold. Earlier this month, Malaysian officials in Paris were able to prevent French authorities from confiscating several properties in the French capital.
“These jurisdictions, for example, Spain, Luxembourg, France… We want their governments to respect our government… How can a commercial arbitrator come and question our sovereignty?” Malaysia’s law minister, Azalina Othman Said, said in a parliamentary speech earlier this month.
Europe’s colonial legacy “has become an important obstacle in the EU’s efforts to upgrade relations with African nations,” noted Shada Islam, a Brussels-based specialist on European Union affairs. But, so far, it hasn’t been such an important topic of opprobrium in Southeast Asia.
“References to colonial practices are sometimes made in reference to what Southeast Asian nations view as the EU’s restrictive trade policies, especially as regards palm oil, but these are largely in off-the-record comments, not in official discourses,” she added.
But the colonial legacy still lingers. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, was forced to apologize after his remarks last year in which he described Europe as an idyllic “garden” and the rest of the world as mostly a “jungle.”
“Some have misinterpreted the metaphor as ‘colonial Euro-centrism,’” Borrell wrote in a blog post in October. “I am sorry if some have felt offended.”
What is now Malaysia gained its independence from Britain in 1957, while all Southeast Asian nations except Thailand were at one point colonized by a European power. Many also underwent Japanese occupation in the 1940s, and the Philippines was once a colony of the United States.
The Sulu heirs
Eight descendants of the Sulu sultanate, funded by a London-based investor, have filed applications in multiple arbitration courts across Europe.
The claimants argue Kuala Lumpur has reneged on a land deal made in 1878 between Jamalul Kiram II, the last Sultan of Sulu, and the British North Borneo Company, a trading company, over the use of land that is now part of the Malaysian state of Sabah.
After it gained independence, Malaysia paid the heirs a token sum for decades but broke off those payments in 2013 after a self-proclaimed descendant of Jamalul Kiram II invaded the Lahad Datu district, in Sabah, with around 200 militants from nearby Philippines.
Last year, a French arbitration court ordered the Malaysian government to pay the $15 billion to the Sulu claimants. But Malaysia — which did not participate in the original arbitration as it claims the process an illegal land grab — obtained a stay on the ruling while it pursues an appeal. A decision could come as early as June.
The Sulu heirs are also trying to obtain seizure orders against Malaysia-owned property from other European courts. On March 7, French bailiffs attempted to enforce a seizure order on three Paris properties owned by the Malaysian government, but they were turned away by officials at the Malaysian embassy in Paris, Reuters reported.
It is thought that this was in relation to a debt of €2.3 million awarded to the heirs by an earlier preliminary arbitration award in Spain. The French authorities are now evaluating whether those three properties, which are reportedly not diplomatic premises, can be seized. According to the UN convention on arbitration, all state assets aside from diplomatic property can be seized after such an arbitration ruling abroad.
The Sulu heirs claim their side is the one fighting the “anti-imperialist” battle. They purport to be the victims battling for “justice” for those “dispossessed” by Western imperialism, according to statements from their lawyers.
But the Malaysian government also sees it through anti-colonial eyes: European courts are threatening to breach its sovereignty to appropriate billions of dollars of its wealth.
According to Rahul Mishra, a senior lecturer at the Asia-Europe Institute of University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, the focus of the Malaysian government is “still on Sulu heirs and not the European courts of law, which should be beneficial for the EU in not getting dragged into a controversy.”
But that could change once those courts give their final arbitration rulings, and if Malaysia-owned property is confiscated by European bailiffs.
Europe’s colonial legacy could also become more prominent in relations as “calls for climate justice and the decolonization movement gather momentum in the Global South and in academic circles in Europe,” said Islam, the analyst.
The EU’s reputation in Southeast Asia has improved in recent years, and Brussels is the preferred “third party” that Southeast Asian nations want to engage with amid fractious US-China superpower rivalry in the region, according to the State of Southeast Asia 2023 survey report published last month. Some 43% of the region’s respondents preferred the EU as an alternative partner, well ahead of Japan, the UK and India.
“As a history graduate, I am acutely aware of the long-lasting impact of colonialism on societies across all continents and it is a shameful part of history,” Igor Driesmans, the EU ambassador to ASEAN, told DW.
“We should not, however, confuse these reprehensible acts undertaken by a limited number of countries in the past with those undertaken by the European Union and its 27 member states in present times,” he added.
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“Aside from the fact that the majority of our member states have never participated in any colonial venture, I believe that the founding principles and documents of the European Union are the exact opposite of any systematic exploitation.”