MANILA, Philippines (UPDATE) – President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday asked Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to recall his followers who have been holed up for two weeks now in Sabah to claim ownership of the Malaysian territory.
At a press conference in Malacañang, Aquino, addressing Kiram, said that the presence of the sultanate's armed followers in the disputed territory will not bring about a resolution to the long-standing issue.
"These are your people, and it behooves you to recall them. It must be clear to you that this small group of people will not succeed in addressing your grievances, and that there is no way that force can achieve your aims," Aquino said.
"You are a leader of your clan, and every leader seeks the well-being of his constituents. These times require you to use your influence to prevail on our countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause."
About 180 followers, 20 to 30 of whom are armed, have been holed up in the town of Lahad Datu for two weeks already on orders from the sultan. They are led by crown prince Datu Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram.
The group, citing numerous historical accounts and rental receipts from the Malaysian government, said the Sultanate of Sulu is the rightful owner of the land.
Aquino said the Philippine and Malaysian governments are now working to reach a peaceful resolution to the standoff.
"From the outset of this incident, our primary consideration has always been to protect all lives. (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Albert) del Rosario had already reached an agreement with Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah that this issue should be resolved in a peaceful manner," he said.
"Our armed forces and police have been actively communicating with their Malaysian counterparts to peacefully resolve the situation. Other agencies of government have also been tasked to prepare for any contingencies that could potentially affect our citizens. For example, the Philippine and Malaysian Navies have worked together to prevent other groups from entering Lahad Datu. From the three extensions of the deadline given by Malaysia, to the constant coordination as events unfolded, our efforts have not ceased."
The Philippines has sent a "humanitarian ship" to ferry back the claimants to the country. A number of emissaries have also been sent to the Kiram family to ask them to convince the group in Lahad Datu to return home peacefully.
Aquino also assured Kiram that his administration is not ignoring the sultatanate's grievances. He said a letter sent to him by Kiram when his term had just begun was lost "in the bureaucratic maze." He said he had no intention to ignore it.
"Knowing this now, will you let your mistaken belief dictate your course of action?" he said, addressing Kiram.
"The avenue of peaceful and open dialogue is still available to us. Let us therefore sit down as brothers to address your grievances in a peaceful, calm manner according to our laws and according to correct processes when your people arrive home."
Kiram, followers violated constitution
Aquino also warned the sultan and his followers of possible violations of the constitution with their actions.
The president cited Article 2, Section 2 of the constitution which states that the Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy, the enabling law of which is Article 118 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes those who "provoke or give occasion for a war…or expose Filipino citizens to reprisals on their persons or property."
Aquino said he has ordered an investigation for these possible infractions. Collaborators who allegedly helped the claimants in reaching Sabah may also be held liable.
"Thus, you are now fully aware of the consequences of your actions," Aquino said, addressing Kiram.
"We have not yet reached the point of no return, but we are fast approaching that point."
Aquino said Kiram and his followers' actions have also put at risk the lives of those residing in the island, mostly Malaysian citizens with Filipino descent.
He added that trade activities between Mindanao and Sabah have been affected by the standoff.
"This is a situation that cannot persist. If you are truly the leader of your people, you should be one with us in ordering your followers to return home peacefully," he told Kiram.
"This is the time to demonstrate that you are a true leader both in name and deed. The right thing to do now would be to order your followers to return home as soon as possible. The choices and consequences are yours. If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way."