MANILA, Philippines - The government is committed to ensuring a peaceful end to the standoff in Sabah involving some 200 mostly armed Filipinos claiming to be followers and guards of the Sultanate of Sulu, which was pressing its claim on the territory.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte voiced the government’s commitment in an interview yesterday over radio dzRB. Valte said an investigation into the incident would be launched as soon as the standoff is peacefully resolved.
She also said they have yet to confirm if the group had indeed gone to the secluded town of Lahad Datu to press the sultanate’s claim on Sabah. Malaysian police have set up a series of roadblocks along the route leading from Lahad Datu.
A statement bearing the letterhead of the Sultanate of Sulu said the Sabah incident “can reverberate and escalate in full scale war, which can catch the attention of international observers.”
Valte said the Palace had been apprised of the role of “certain personalities” in the incident but that it would be up to the Department of Foreign Affairs to identify them and determine “the entirety of the facts that are attendant to that incident.”
“At present, what we are paying attention really is for the situation to be peaceful and for no one to get hurt. And also, as mentioned by (Foreign Affairs) Secretary (Albert) del Rosario, we have been assured that the rights of the people there will be respected,” Valte said.
“At this point, we don’t really want to engage in speculations about who these people are, what they are doing there. Perhaps, the primary concern now is their safety and to resolve the incident peacefully,” she said.
She said Del Rosario had received an assurance from his Malaysian counterpart Foreign Minister Anifah Aman that a peaceful approach to ending the standoff would be priority.
“The step to be taken is through peaceful negotiations and they are being encouraged to leave peacefully. So that’s the important thing for us,” Valte said.
Valte also said it would be up to the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process to address allegations that the group had resented being left out in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, hence its decision to renew its claim on Sabah.
Kuala Lumpur is brokering the peace negotiations between the government and the MILF despite the Philippines’ standing claim on Sabah, which has been “dormant” for decades.
Habib Mujahab Hashim, Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) central committee member and chairman of the Islamic Command Council, earlier said the armed men comprised the “Royal Army” of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Sabah is part of the Sultanate of Sulu leased to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878. In 1963, Britain transferred control of Sabah to Malaysia. The Sultanate protested the handover, saying it was a violation of the lease agreement of 1878.
In a statement yesterday, the Sultanate of Sulu said it made a decision on Nov. 11, 2012 to “bring (its) constituents to its sovereign domain of Sabah (North Borneo), which has been under the illegal possession of the Federation of Malaysia since 1963.”
“Let the diplomatic community be reminded that the Sultanate of Sulu has never ended with the death of Sultan Jamalul Kiram II in 1936, as the British and Malaysian governments pretend,” the statement read.
“The thorough succession of sultans has continued up to the present. In fact Diosdado Macapagal accepted the Transfer of the Title of Sovereignty of the Sultanate of Sulu over the territory and inhabitants of North Borneo to the Republic of the Philippines, which was signed on Aug. 29, 1962,” the Sultanate added in its statement.
Meanwhile, Armed Forces chief Gen. Emmanuel Bautista said Malaysia has asked the Philippines to secure its borders as a result of the Sabah standoff.
Bautista said his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Zulkifli Zainal Abidin discussed the matter with him over the phone recently.
“They (Malaysia) requested us to patrol our borders as they will also patrol their side of the borders to prevent the illegal entrance (of foreigners),” Bautista said.
“To prevent further complicating the situation, they are going to address peacefully the situation there,” he added.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said the situation in Sabah is under control and that the country’s police attaché had been sent there to gather details about the standoff, which began last Wednesday.
But for Philippine National Police chief Director General Alan Purisima, the situation remains “volatile.” He declined to elaborate.
“We cannot just say something about that because we consider diplomacy,” Purisima said.
Asked about the possible implication of the standoff on the country’s standing claim on Sabah, Gazmin said, “Right now, we can’t say anything about that. Malaysian authorities are talking with the supposed claimants. We will know after the outcome of these talks.”
Malaysian authorities had initially suspected the armed men to be militants fleeing hostilities in Mindanao between MNLF fighters and the terror group Abu Sayyaf.
“They call themselves the Royal (Sulu) Sultanate Army. They are making it appear that they are the security (personnel) of Sultan (Esmail Dalus) Kiram,” Gazmin said referring to the armed men. “The group said they wanted to stay there in Sabah since it is theirs.”
Bautista said the Filipinos involved in the standoff “agreed to discuss the matter peacefully with the Malaysians.”
“They will return to the Philippines in due time,” he said.
“Increased patrols and tighter security measures have been put in place in waters off Tawi-Tawi and adjoining islands,” the DFA said in a statement.
Sabah has a history of incursions by armed Philippine groups, and the prickly situation could test ties between the neighbors, who are fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
In the worst incident, Abu Sayyaf terrorists seized 21 mostly Western tourists at the Sabah scuba diving resort of Sipadan in 2000. They were taken to Mindanao and later ransomed.
Battle vs illiteracy
While authorities from the Philippines and Malaysia scramble to end the Sabah standoff peacefully, civic leaders in Quezon City have mobilized to fight a literacy crisis affecting hundreds of children of undocumented Filipinos in the territory.
Members of the Rotary Club in Quezon City vowed to intervene in addressing the illiteracy problem that has affected Filipino minors denied access to Malaysian public education program due to lack of proper immigration papers.
Lawyer Rufino Policarpio III, district governor of Rotary International 3780, said children of undocumented Filipinos who fled conflict areas in Mindanao to Sabah are growing up without proper basic education.
“We learned about this lamentable fate of young Filipinos from Ambassador Eduardo Malaya. Many of our Rotary club members have volunteered to help educate them as part of the Rotary International literacy program,” he said.
Computer and projector sets were immediately sent by the Rotary Club of Cubao Sunrise headed by businessman Gilbert Artificio to the organizers of “Project Stairway to Hope” learning center in Sabah.
Policarpio said a number of Rotary Clubs have pledged more support to help the literacy project succeed.
Project chairperson Marilou Chin said the Federation of Filipino Associations in Malaysia founded the basic learning program for the benefit of Sabah-based Filipinos youths aged six to 16.
Chin said they have set the inauguration of classroom this month even as she stressed the need for “more qualified teachers.”
“We have four volunteer teachers who come to teach three times a week between Monday, Wednesday and Friday,” she said.
Chin said repair work for the school has been slowed down by lack of funds. However, she aired optimism that more well meaning Filipinos and civic organizations like the Quezon City-based Rotary District 3780 organization will respond to the call for support.
“We know that the blessing will flow according to our prayers and many like your organization (Rotary) will touch the lives of these children,” Chin said in a letter to Artificio. – With Paolo Romero, Alexis Romero