MANILA, Philippines - Senatorial candidates of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) yesterday took turns criticizing the government’s handling of the standoff in Sabah, which on Friday erupted into violence that killed 15 people, mostly followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III.
In Cagayan de Oro City, former senator Richard Gordon called the government’s response to the impasse “severely woeful, anti-Filipino, and subservient to Malaysia.”
“That bloody encounter could have been avoided and should never have happened,” Gordon said.
He said the DFA should be at the forefront of the issue and must never compromise the Chief Executive by allowing him to make comments on such issues.
“Should not our ambassador to Malaysia be the one at the frontline? Or our DFA officials?” Gordon asked.
Gordon also decried what he called the lack of attention given to Sultan Kiram’s letters to President Aquino.
“And what about our intelligence officials? How is it that no one even knew that a large number of Filipinos was headed to Sabah?” Gordon said.
“Whoever is advising the President on foreign policy matters has done terribly wrong by our people and has put us on a slippery slope with regard to this conflict,” Gordon added.
For his part, UNA secretary general and campaign manager Toby Tiangco chided yesterday Department of the Interior and Local Government Secretary Manuel Roxas II for calling Kiram matigas ang ulo (hard-headed).”
“Sec. Roxas’ reckless remarks reflect his arrogance. Being the one in charge of peace and order, his high-handed dismissal of the legitimate issues raised by the sultan is unacceptable. The mishandling of the Sabah incident clearly reflects the political failure of the administration and the utter lack of leadership displayed by Roxas and Malacañang,” he said.
Tiangco said the Sabah crisis requires leaders who are willing to assume accountability and not shift the blame to others.
“The unfortunate incident in Sabah illustrates a precarious political situation that has the potential of escalating into a wild war if the Aquino administration keeps its silence on addressing the issue and fails to swiftly act on the them,” he maintained.
“The Philippine government should have negotiated for more time to talk to the sultan. The government should have done everything to avoid the bloodshed. The life of each Filipinos is the most important. Why should we allow the death of the 12 Filipinos? The safety of the Filipinos should have been given priority,” he said.
Sen. Gregorio Honasan, meanwhile, said the Sabah standoff would not have resulted in deaths had President Aquino not issued “mixed signals.”
“The problem here is the mixed signals sent by the government. President Aquino said he already appealed to Sultan Kiram and his followers to board the ship and go back to the Philippines. But at the same time, they were being confronted with possible case, possible charges once they get back home. So, it’s mixed signals. I’m sure that was not what the President meant,” Honasan told The STAR.
“He should have cleared that,” he added.
He said the violence last Friday is likely to have “long-term repercussions” on the peace negotiations between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front as well as on Philippine-Malaysia relations.
“That will be the heaviest negative effect of that. It is high time for a more serious foreign policy planning and security planning,” Honasan said.
Asked if the President’s campaigning for his senatorial candidates might have distracted him from the Sabah issue or if he might need to take a leave of absence to focus on the campaign, Honasan said “I will not dare give an unsolicited advise to the highest official in the land.”
“It’s a simple case of prioritization and time management. It will be very imprudent, awkward and presumptuous of me to even insinuate that the President should take a leave of absence,” Honasan said.
Aquino was in Pampanga campaigning for his senatorial candidates when violence broke out in Sabah.
“Should the peace process conk out and the Philippine-Malaysia relationships turn sour, we might have a problem that we faced more than a generation ago and I know it because I fought in Mindanao. Even then we were feeling the effects of the bungled Jabidah project,” Honasan said, referring to the massacre of Muslim soldiers conscripted for an operation to take Sabah during the Marcos regime.
“We must continue our close coordination with the Malaysian authorities, but let’s not forget that our claim to Sabah is an active claim by the Sultanate of Sulu. That is the sentiment of Sultan Kiram, that their concerns are not given attention or they have been totally excluded in the framework agreement although Sultan Kiram was present in Malacañang,” Honasan said, referring to the framework agreement signed by the government with the MILF on Oct. 15 last year.
“I think the government has to refocus on the forgotten live and legitimate claims to Sabah which have been put on the back burner, almost totally neglected. I’ve been a senator for 15 years, it has already been there,” Honasan said.
Honasan’s fellow UNA candidate, Mitos Magsaysay, said Aquino’s asking Kiram and his supporters to surrender unconditionally would only worsen the situation in Sabah.
“Threatening them will not work and it will exacerbate the situation,” she said.
Magsaysay said Aquino and his advisers should keep themselves “abreast with the culture of Muslims to avoid all these mistakes they are committing.”
“Are they with us Filipinos or with the Malaysians? Will they just allow our brothers to be killed there and do nothing? Is this how the government shows their love for our Muslim brothers? It’s the government’s fault that it has come to this because they did not give any importance to Kiram’s concerns, which they brought to the attention of the President last year,” Magsaysay said.
“I grieve with the families of Filipino casualties. I hope the crisis will stop and there will be no more deaths,” she said.
Another UNA bet, former ambassador Ernesto Maceda, chided Malacañang for its “lackluster” handling of the issue. “He (President Aquino) should have opened more active negotiations with the Prime Minister of Malaysia,” Maceda said. He stressed that Aquino should take “a definite stand” on Kiram’s claims on Sabah.
For JV Ejercito, the administration should not give up on diplomacy in addressing the Sabah issue. “We ask the Aquino administration to address the grievances raised carefully with peaceful solution and diplomacy,” Ejercito said.
He also appealed to Kiram and his followers to heed calls for a peaceful end to the standoff.
“We lament the loss of precious lives of our brother-Muslims in Sabah,” he said. “Let’s make sure Philippine government aid is immediately extended to those in need and take needed measures to ensure the safety of other Filipinos in Sabah,” said senatorial bet Nancy Binay.