MANILA - Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. told lawmakers on Tuesday he has decided to revive the North Borneo Bureau in the Department of Foreign Affairs to uphold the country's claim to Sabah, a plan that already drew objection from a former Malaysian official.
"While we fiercely guard our waters, we are not forgetting our terrestrial domain. In pursuit of securing what is ours, I have decided to reactivate the North Borneo Bureau," Locsin told the House Appropriations Committee.
"After realizing that the rest of us have almost forgotten our Sabah claim, casually designating it as another country’s territory, well we have not forgotten. This is one of several international disagreements we can afford to conduct in our best interest without any risk of loss of any kind for our country," he said.
"Our honor is involved here."
Located east of Malaysia's northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines' Sulu, Sabah was declared part of the Malaysian federation in 1963, but which Manila said it "has acquired dominion and sovereignty" over in its 1968 law on the country's baselines.
The Philippines lays claim over Sabah, which is currently governed by Malaysia, citing a land lease agreement in 1878 between the Sultanate of Sulu and the British North Borneo Chartered Co.
Responding to the interpellation of Lanao del Sur Rep. Abdullah Dimaporo, Locsin said there are plans to revive both the Brunei Darussalam-Indonesia-Malaysia-Philippines East ASEAN Growth Area (BIMP-EAGA) and the Sabah claim.
"BIMP-EAGA, dormant for a while but it was agreed to revive it. Pretty much like even some of our special concerns like Sabah. That was, on our part, put on back burner which I never agreed with. But over the years, from one admin after another, starting with Cory Aquino, it was put in the back burner," said the country's top diplomat who served as Aquino's legal counsel and speech writer.
"But something happened this year. And if I may talk about this, when the press release was put out by the US embassy and they very casually referred to Sabah, Malaysia, and that was it. I blew my top," Locsin shared, recalling an incident that happened in late July.
"I told (the US) embassy (to) take it down. Of course, they didn’t want to do it. So I accused them... And (US Secretary of State ) Mike Pompeo said, 'Leave it to me. I will make sure to bring it down'," he went on.
"Because that thing has been happening to us. That claim has always been there. We should have never allowed it to be dormant. But ... we have no control over that. But now, we are going to revive that bureau and make sure no one is allowed to question that claim without a challenge from us."
"That is part of Philippine history, especially of Philippine south," Locsin said of Sabah.
Locsin's tweet in July that "Sabah is not in Malaysia" prompted a retort from Malaysian Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein that such was "an irresponsible statement."
Earlier this month, former Malaysian deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim reacted to the reported revival of DFA's North Borneo office, denouncing what he regards as attempts of some Philippine officials to question Malaysia's sovereignty over Sabah.
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, Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque said in July.
There had only been intermittent discussions between the Philippines and Malaysia over the conflicting claims.
In November 2016, President Rodrigo Duterte and then Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed to set aside the dispute.
Just last year, on a visit to Manila, then Malaysia Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said "there is no claim" when asked of the Philippines' assertion of sovereignty over Sabah in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News.