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Food blockade in Sabah; MNLF, Tingting deny sabotage

ZAMBOANGA CITY, Philippines – Malaysian authorities have imposed a food blockade on hundreds of followers of the sultan of Sulu who refuse to leave Sabah, an official of the sultanate said yesterday.

Abraham Idjirani, secretary general of the sultanate, decried the blockade as a violation of the rights of the members of the Sultanate Royal Army led by Raja Muda Abimuddin Kiram, who have been locked in a standoff with Malaysian forces for nearly a week in the coastal town of Lahad Datu in Sabah.

Idjirani said Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III would file a complaint with an international human rights organization to protest the latest action of Malaysia. The sultanate claims much of Sabah as ancestral land, and continues to receive rent from the Malaysian government.

“We have been stressing that our people went there in peace, Sabah being our homeland,” Idjirani said after the sultanate was informed yesterday that Malaysian authorities had prevented food supplies from being brought to Kiram’s followers.

This developed as the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and an aunt of President Aquino denied trying to sabotage the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Margarita “Tingting” Cojuangco, the President’s aunt, called the report “irresponsible” and said she is closer to the MILF than to Misuari.

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MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said the report is “a big lie.”

“Only a child would peddle such a tale. How can the MNLF and former national security adviser Norberto Gonzales conspire to sabotage the government?” Fontanilla said.

He claimed Gonzales had tried to have Misuari replaced as MNLF chairman. Gonzales was also instrumental in the arrest and imprisonment of Misuari in Malaysia, Fontanilla alleged.

He added that the MNLF is the victim of a conspiracy among some government officials, the MILF and Malaysia to stop the implementation of the 1996 peace agreement signed by Misuari with the Ramos administration.

MNLF chieftain Nur Misuari, however, admitted that members of his group were among those holed up in Sabah.

Misuari himself did not comment directly about the reported attempt to sabotage the peace process with the MILF, which broke away from the MNLF.

Instead, he told The STAR yesterday that he had appealed to Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak not to use force on the group in Lahad Datu.

“We do not want bloodshed and we want to settle the issue of Sabah peacefully,” Misuari said. “If the Malaysians will harm our brothers, then we will get involved. They are our relatives and brothers in arms.”

He emphasized that the MNLF has ruled out the use of force to assert the Sulu sultanate’s claim to Sabah.

“We do not want a repeat of the Jabidah massacre,” Misuari said.

He was referring to the reported killing by the military of a Muslim unit called Jabidah in 1967, during the presidency of Ferdinand Marcos, when the Muslims refused to be sent to Sabah to foment unrest and assert the Philippines’ claim.

Kiram said over the weekend that he had instructed his followers to stay put in Lahad Datu because “Sabah is our home.”

The assertion of the Sabah claim by the Sulu sultanate, according to highly placed sources, had infuriated President Aquino, who reportedly felt it was meant to sabotage the peace process with the MILF.

The sources said among those believed to have instigated the incident were Misuari, Norberto Gonzales, and Cojuangco and her husband Jose, younger brother of the late President Corazon Aquino.

Campaigning in Pampanga yesterday with the other senatorial candidates of the United Nationalist Alliance, Margarita Cojuangco said they would not allow a division in their family.

“They can never make my family fight. First of all, the Cojuangcos are focused on service first, and we always value our family’s unity,” she said as she demanded to know the source of the story.

At Malacañang, officials did not comment on the story, even as they denied rumors that Kiram would be arrested.

Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras would only say that the administration realized that not everyone would be pleased with gains in the peace process.

Development projects in MILF areas would be pursued, said Almendras, who heads the Task Force on Bangsamoro Development.

He said the Department of Foreign Affairs will handle the Philippines’ claim to Sabah – described by Aquino as “dormant” – and there is no need for a full Cabinet meeting on the issue.

Almendras denied that Aquino met with Kiram.

Misuari is running for governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) – a position he once held.

Several ARMM local leaders are calling for a probe into the involvement of Misuari’s MNLF faction in the standoff in Sabah.

Sources said Misuari and his group feared they would be marginalized after the government signed the framework peace agreement with the MILF in October last year.

No politics, please

For Sen. Francis Escudero, only a non-partisan effort by all concerned sectors can bring the Sabah standoff to a peaceful end.

“Politics should be kept out of this issue, this is a matter of national interest,” Escudero said.

“To achieve true and lasting peace in Mindanao, hindi puede ang pasaway (troublemakers should not be allowed),” Escudero said. “Enough is enough. We should all work towards one common goal – peace in Mindanao. I call on my fellow candidates not to use the Sabah issue to promote their own political interests,” he added.

Sen. Gregorio Honasan said the public should be cautious against conspiracy theories or making unfounded claims that can undermine the peace process.

“We don’t have evidence to support that theory,” he said, referring to concerns by some officials that the Sabah standoff was meant to sabotage the peace process between the government and the MILF.

“These are all speculations so we should be careful against propagating that theory because this might not be good for the peace talks, and the country,” Honasan said.

“In terms of timing, we should also be careful since the peace process is a work in process, and we should also be wary on making this issue as a partisan political issue,” he said.

But Sen. Panfilo Lacson said President Aquino’s sabotage claims should be taken seriously, since the President has “the wealthiest source of intelligence information like no other.”

“When he says the Sabah incident is probably sabotage operation to derail the Mindanao peace process, we should have no reason to doubt the same,” Lacson said.

Sen. Aquilino Pimentel III, for his part, said the government should assure the Sulu sultanate that the country is not giving up its Sabah claim even if peace negotiations with the MILF are ongoing.

“We will include the teaching of the Sabah claim as part of Philippine history. Then we pursue the claim on behalf of the sultanate in due time,” Pimentel said.

Earlier, Escudero called for a diplomatic initiative to address the plight of Filipinos who were born and raised in Sabah.

But Sen. Loren Legarda, chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, said that “for now, efforts should be directed at ensuring a peaceful resolution of the situation (in Sabah).”  – With Jose Rodel Clapano, Perseus Echeminada, Aurea Calica, Jaime Laude, John Unson, Christina Mendez

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