MANILA, Philippines - The Philippines is setting aside its claim over Sabah for now as it moves to peacefully end the standoff in the territory between Malaysian security forces and hundreds of armed men claiming to be followers of the Sultan of Sulu.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte pointed this out in a press briefing when asked about the status of the country’s Sabah claim and how it could affect efforts to end the standoff, which began last Wednesday.
“From what I understand, the claim is there and it hasn’t moved for quite some time. I also remember that the President did make mention of
it – that it’s been dormant. Let’s leave it at that for the moment,” Valte said yesterday.
“I understand that the claim was resurrected by former President Diosdado Macapagal. So we are talking about a number of presidencies now (to get an idea of) how long that claim has existed. Now, I cannot answer for previous governments, why the claim has remained dormant and, at least for this particular administration, the DFA (Department of Foreign Affairs) will really be in a better position to explain to you how the claim has come to be and what the status is at the moment,” Valte said.
Valte denied the President had met with Sultan Jamalul Kiram III whose 400 supporters – some armed – have been holed up in the remote Sabah town of Lahad Datu since last week.
She said Philippine and Malaysian officials were working together to end the standoff.
“We’re not aware of anybody being sent to set up such a meeting but from our end, you’ve seen the schedule of the President, it’s pretty full,” Valte said.
Kiram was quoted in reports as saying that his followers were determined to stay in the area despite their being surrounded by Malaysian security forces. The incident prompted calls for the Philippines to revive its claim over Sabah.
Kuala Lumpur is brokering the government’s peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
When asked if she thought the standoff was linked to the peace talks with the MILF, Valte said “hopefully not.”
“Maybe there are groups that (are testing the waters) because we have come to a point in the peace process where it is actually possible to attain peace. And we’re doing everything on that front to make sure that happens,” Valte said.
Earlier, Presidential Communications Development and Strategic Planning Office Secretary Ricky Carandang said the government found it disturbing that “these incidents are occurring just as we are nearing a deal that will bring peace and development to Muslim Mindanao.”
Valte also declined to comment on the possible involvement of Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) chairman Nur Misuari in the incident.
“We can’t talk about specifics at this point,” Valte said.
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez also said there are no discussions regarding the country’s claim over Sabah at this point.
“What is important now is for them to leave the area because they could affect existing issues that we have in that area, including the peace talks, and including possible bilateral relations,” Hernandez told reporters. “As I said, that issue is not under discussion for the time being, and that would be for the policymaker to decide in the future,” he said. “There is an existing claim, and nothing has changed so far from our side.”
Hernandez said negotiations to end the standoff were focused on making sure the Filipinos leave the small Sabah coastal town peacefully.
“Actually, the efforts to ask them to leave peacefully are something that is a work in progress and we are coordinating this process with the Malaysian government,” Hernandez said.
“There are no reports of daily violence, there are no reports of bloodshed. What is happening now is they are talking with the group, and also our officials, our security and defense officials are also talking with their counterparts in Malaysia, so this process is being done through a peaceful manner through negotiations,” he added.
The MNLF, meanwhile, denied it orchestrated the standoff but stressed its support for the Sultanate’s claim over Sabah.
“We strongly deny any insinuation that chairman Misuari has involvement in the standoff in Sabah,” MNLF spokesman for Mindanao Emmanuel Fontanilla said.
“While the MNLF respects and supports the Sabah claim, the MNLF has nothing to do with the action of the Sultan,” he said.
Misuari, in an interview over radio dzMM, said there was historical justification for the Sultanate of Sulu’s move to stake its claim on Sabah.
Haji Gapul Hadjirul, MNLF central committee political director, said Misuari’s declaration enjoyed the support of the group’s central committee, its people’s parliament, the Supreme Ulama Council.
The MNLF continues to maintain a camp in Simunol Island, used as jump-off point by some supporters of the Sultanate of Sulu for their Lahad Datu incursion.
An MNLF source said he had advised Kiram and his group to reoccupy Sabah to strengthen their claim over the territory.
The Philippines started its claim over Sabah in 1962 after the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo gave the government, then under President Diosdado Macapagal, the legal authority to negotiate on their behalf.
The Sultanate of Sulu obtained Sabah from the Sultanate of Brunei as a gift for helping put down a rebellion. The Sulu Sultanate leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878. The British, however, included Sabah in the territories it handed back to Malaysia after the latter gained independence in 1963.
From then on Kuala Lumpur pays an annual rent of 5,300 ringgit ($1,600) to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
Renew Sabah claim
With no end in sight to the Sabah standoff, calls for the Philippines to vigorously press its claim over the territory have grown louder.
“We can afford (to press the claim) because it is our right, and it is our property, we have good basis to claim and therefore, to negotiate for it,” former Senate president Ernesto Maceda told The STAR after the signing of a manifesto for peaceful and orderly elections initiated by church groups at Club Filipino yesterday.
He said the administration should consider pursuing the claim by filing a case before the United Nations.
“It’s been sleeping for ages. The government is not pursuing it. I am urging the government to start pursuing it again, because it is clear that Sabah belongs to us. Because there was a time when the British and Malaysian government was paying rent to us,” he said.
If elected again, Maceda said he would “make noise at the Senate, and then press the executive department to pursue the claim.”
“Renewed government effort is the only way to stop the followers of the Sultan of Sulu from taking up arms and invading Sabah to press their claim,” Maceda said.
In the same event yesterday, Senate Minority Leader Alan Peter Cayetano said pursuing the Sabah claim would require a balancing act for the Philippine government.
“There is a way to maintain ties, to continue to act as responsible citizens of the world, and at the same time fight for your rights… at the same time, it doesn’t mean that (if) a country’s military (is) stronger at a point in time, we should give it up. We should fight for every inch of Philippine territory,” Cayetano said.
Cayetano also urged the DFA to make a clear stand on the issue. He noted that while the Philippines and Malaysia are good trading partners, the fight for ownership of Sabah “should be made diplomatically.”
“We made a stand against China, which is an emerging super power. The Constitution, when it was made, there are historical claims. I agree with those who are saying that we should address this also,” Cayetano added.
Former President Joseph Estrada also said he was in favor of the country pressing its claim over Sabah more strongly.
“We must fight for it,” Estrada said at a media forum. “If I were the president, I must fight for it. There are many ways to reclaim Sabah. We must exhaust all remedies.” With Christina Mendez, Pia Lee-Brago, Jose Rodel Clapano, Jaime Laude, Perseus Echeminada