MANILA - The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) should "seize the opportunity" to stake the Philippines' claim to Sabah following the legal victory of the heirs of the Sulu Sultanate against the Malaysian government, according to a senator on Wednesday.
During the Commission on Appointments (CA) committee hearing on DFA Secretary Enrique Manalo's nomination, Sen. Francis Tolentino probed the country's top diplomat regarding the agency's position on Sabah.
Earlier this year, a French arbitral court ruled in favor of the descendants of Jamal-ul Kiram II, the last Sultan of Sulu who died in 1936. It ordered Malaysia to pay US$14.9 billion to the heirs for breach of an international private lease agreement.
According to Manalo, prior to his appointment and before the start of the new administration, the government already had a "cluster committee" that studied the impact of the said award.
"In this particular issue, we have in fact, before I came here, we had a cluster committee precisely to analyze the legal implications of this award especially vis a vis our claim," Manalo told the CA members.
The secretary said he plans to reconvene the body to continue its assessment.
"We will propably have to reconvene again... because there may be, because since this is a legal private award, implication on our sovereignty claim," he said.
"We have our standing claim to Sabah. That is there in the Constitution," Manalo added.
The Office of the Solicitor General (OSG) is also studying the implications of the arbitral ruling, but admitted it would take time.
But for Tolentino, the implication of the award was clear: the Philippines "owns" Sabah.
"The DFA should now seize the opportunity. Nanalo tayo eh. Whether that was initiated by a private group is irrelevant. The implication is that we own Sabah," the lawmaker said.
He added: "750,000 Filipinos live there, stateless, without social security benefits, health benefits, not allowed to vote, just crisscrossing Tawi-Tawi and Sabah. And yet they're unrecognized."
The senator also wanted the DFA to tap arbitration experts since, according to him, the country had lost many of its arbitration cases.
"Have a group in your department to be familiar with arbitration, commercial arbitration, international arbitration, because we have to hire foreign lawyers, we have to pay millions of dollars and we have lost all our cases... I think you should have an expertise on this," Tolentino said.
Manalo was confirmed by the CA later in the day.
Press Secretary Trixie Cruz-Angeles earlier said President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has not yet voiced his latest stance on the Sabah issue.
Sabah, located east of Malaysia's northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines' Sulu, is being claimed by the two countries.
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, then President Rodrigo Duterte and 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.