MANILA (UPDATE) - Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. on Friday said Filipinos leaving Sabah due to the COVID-19 pandemic should not be called repatriates.
In a virtual interview on "Usapang Community Quarantine" by former diplomatic beat reporter Malou Talosig-Bartolome, the top Philippine diplomat said the virus crisis should not be politicized amid a long-standing dispute over Sabah, a territory east of Malaysia’s northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines' Sulu.
"When this COVID-19 was starting and Zamboanga was getting quite a lot infections from Filipinos leaving Sabah to go to Zamboanga, I told the ambassador, 'Don't you dare call them repatriates,'" he said, referring apparently to the Malaysian envoy to the Philippines.
"You just say you're moving Filipinos from one place to the other. Don't you dare call them that and he has not."
Authorities earlier said some 5,300 Filipinos were expected to return to the Philippines from Sabah.
Locsin said those facilitating the transfer of Filipinos from Sabah were the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and International Organization for Migration (IOM).
"They [UNDP/IOM] never say anything. They are moving human beings from one place to another and let's keep it that way," he said.
"Let's not use the misery of people regardless of nationality as an excuse to assert something that might piss me off."
Last Monday, Locsin called out the United States Embassy in the Philippines for calling Sabah as part of Malaysia.
“Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines,” Locsin said in a tweet.
Locsin was reacting to a tweet of the US Embassy on USAID’s donation of hygiene kits for Filipino repatriates who returned from Sabah and who arrived in Zamboanga City and Bongao, Tawi Tawi.
Locsin’s tweet triggered a reaction from the Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who said that the Philippine ambassador to Kuala Lumpur on Monday will be summoned to explain. Locsin said he will also summon Malaysia’s ambassador here.
Hishammuddin criticized Locsin's statement as "irresponsible," threatening it could affect bilateral ties of both nations. He also maintained that "Sabah is, and will always be, part of Malaysia."
Locsin said the Philippines will continue to assert its rights in Sabah, as well as in the West Philippine Sea and that the Philippines will never abandon its claim.
While it recognizes the conflicting claims it has with Malaysia over Sabah, Malacañang also insists the territory is part of modern-day Philippines.
The Philippines has laid a subdued claim over Sabah, a territory southwest of Sulu and governed by Malaysia, citing a land lease agreement in 1878 between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Co. -- with a report from Willard Cheng, ABS-CBN News