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What you should know about the Ligitan and Sipidan dispute

The Ligitan and Sipadan dispute was all over media headlines during the late 90s and early 00s in Malaysia.

It was a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia over islands in the Celebes Sea, namely Ligitan and Sipadan.

The location of Ligitan and Sipadan islands

Sipidan lies to the south of Mabul island and southeast of Kapalai island. While the distance from the Malaysian mainland at Tanjung Tutop on the southeastern coast of Sabah is 14 nautical miles, the nearest distance to Indonesian territory is 40 nautical miles.

The island overall is uninhabited, but it has a small reservoir of fresh water. Fishermen and turtle eggs collectors from nearby Dinawan island have visited this island on a regular basis.

Conservation-wise, Sipadan was declared a bird sanctuary by the colonial government of North Borneo in 1933. Then it was re-gazetted in 1963 by the Malaysian government after the formation of the Malaysian federation.

Since 1988, the Sabah Department for Tourism and Environment built a wildlife preservation office on the island and issued licenses to erect small chalets and beach huts for a scuba-diving resort.

Meanwhile, Ligitan island lies east of Sipadan island. To the west of Ligitan is the Indonesian part of Sebatik island at a distance of 55 nautical miles. Meanwhile, the nearest Malaysian territory is Pulau Dinawan at the northern tip of Ligitan reef with the distance of 8 1/2 nautical miles.

Just like Sipadan, Ligitan is also uninhabited with only a few low bushes growing on it.

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The origin of the Ligitan and Sipadan dispute

The first publicly known Ligitan and Sipadan dispute happened in 1982 when an Indonesian naval patrol appeared near Sipadan island to investigate foreign troops. Both the Malaysian and Indonesian governments reportedly tried to play down the incident, discouraging press coverage.

Then in 1991, Indonesia discovered Malaysia had built some tourist facilities on Sipadan island. The Indonesian government claimed that it had made a verbal agreement with Malaysia in 1969 to discuss the sovereignty of the islands.

Indonesia argued based on the 1891 Convention Between Great Britain and the Netherlands Defining Their Boundaries in Borneo. This was when Sabah (then North Borneo) was under Great Britain while Kalimantan was part of Netherlands’ territory.

Based on this convention, both Ligitan and Sipidan islands would be considered within Indonesian waters.

Furthermore according to the Indonesian government, after the Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation (1963-1966), both countries established their continental shelf boundaries in the Straits of Malacca and the South China Sea by treaty.

More evidence to support Indonesia’s case was a map in 1967 by the Indonesian Armed Forces showing both islands lying within the Indonesian claim.

Malaysia on the other hand denied the allegation of an agreement between the two countries, maintaining Ligitan and Sipidan had always been part of Sabah.

Finally on Nov 2, 1998, Indonesia and Malaysia agreed to bring the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

The court decision on the Ligitan and Sipidan dispute

A map of British North Borneo in 1888 where Ligitan and Sipidan fell under Province Elphinstone. Credit: The British Empire

In the Ligitan and Sipidan dispute, ICJ ruled in Malaysia’s favour due to the country’s effective occupation over the islands.

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Plus, it also noted that Indonesia or even the Netherlands previously, had never issued a formal protest with Malaysia (or Britain) when those activities, such as construction of the lighthouse at Ligitan or the declaration of Sipadan as a bird sanctuary – were carried out.

Additionally, the court acknowledged that both of the islands were much closer to Malaysia than Indonesia.

While the Indonesian claim was mostly based on the 1891 Boundary Treaty, there was earlier documentation which supported the Malaysian claim. It was the British 1878 Agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu during which time they acquired the Sultanate area as part of British North Borneo.

Patricia Hului
Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight. She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science. She worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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