Former PH envoy hits Twitter diplomacy in Sabah dispute issue

Michael Joe Delizo, ABS-CBN News

Posted at Jan 27 2021 04:02 PM

MANILA – Twitter diplomacy is not likely to produce positive results, a retired ambassador said Wednesday as he discussed how the Philippines could push its claim over the state of Sabah.

“The way we do it in the diplomatic field, we send out feelers first. We just don’t go to public media, Twitter, or whatever and start talking something, which hasn’t been cleared with the other side,” retired ambassador Alberto Encomienda told reporters in an online forum.

Encomienda served as Philippine ambassador to Malaysia from 1993 to 1996, where the Philippines was able to get “positive results” on the negotiations over Sabah through friendly consultations in a quiet atmosphere.

Sabah, located east of Malaysia's northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines' Sulu, is being claimed by the two countries.

Encomienda said that traditionally, everyone was polite and considerate.

“That was how it’s always done. And there were positive responses from Malaysia that carried on, until I think things got too hot for Malaysia and it just dropped out,” Encomienda said.

Manila and Kuala Lumpur's competing claims over Sabah was brought to the spotlight in July 2020 after Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. tweeted "Sabah is not in Malaysia," prompting a retort from Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein that such was "an irresponsible statement."

Encomienda said diplomacy through Twitter would never produce productive and constructive results, citing Donald Trump as example.

He said the Secretary of Foreign Affairs should be consulting both people in the field and in the office before saying anything in public.

“Undiplomatic can be a reflection of character. But the thing is, it cannot produce results. So, I don’t really think that’s a very productive or constructive direction,” Encomienda said. 

The former envoy claimed the Philippines had a policy direction and a program of action then.

“I must say, it was done effectively about managing and presenting our claims to Sabah except that this is what I referred to, twice: In that long string of activities, the ball was dropped and this time, I would say intentionally,” he said without giving further details.

While the Philippine government recognizes the conflicting claims it has with Malaysia over Sabah, Manila remains firm in its authority over the territory based on an agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu.

The Philippines lays claim over Sabah citing a land lease agreement in 1878 between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Co.

There had only been intermittent discussions between the Philippines and Malaysia over the claim, and the latter has continued to govern the territory.

In November 2016, Duterte and then Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed to set aside the dispute. 

In 1968, Republic Act 5446 or the law on Philippine baselines included "the territory of Sabah, situated in North Borneo, over which the Republic of the Philippines has acquired dominion and sovereignty." 

It was amended in 2009, but a Supreme Court decision said Republic 9522 or the Baselines Law still did not relinquish the Philippines claim to Sabah.

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