Phl wants diplomatic solution to Sabah standoff

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The government is currently engaged in high-level talks with Malaysian authorities to ensure the safety of Filipinos in Sabah after supporters of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III holed up in Lahad Datu town to press their claim to the land.

Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario met yesterday with Malaysian Ambassador Zamri Bin Mohd Kassim to follow up the request for an extension of the deadline for the Filipinos to voluntarily leave Sabah.

The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) has yet to receive any confirmation from Malaysia about the request for extension.

The Filipinos were only given until Tuesday by Malaysian authorities to voluntary leave Sabah.  

“We are getting mixed signals so we asked that Tuesday midnight deadline be officially confirmed,” Del Rosario said in a text message.  

Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda said the DFA decided to send a ship to Lahad Datu to fetch those who want to come back safely to the Philippines. Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) troops based in Sabah are reportedly converging near Lahad Datu to respond to any forced eviction of the sultan’s followers, an MNLF source said.   

The Philippine Navy ship BRP Tagbanua on Sunday left for Malaysia on a humanitarian mission with social workers and medical personnel on board, to try to fetch five women and some group members.       

Abraham Idjirani, spokesman of the sultanate of Sulu and Borneo, said Kiram’s followers would not honor the mercy mission dispatched by the Philippine government to escort his people back to Sulu because there was no formal coordination.    

“Based on the pronouncement of Raja Muda, they will not talk to anyone who does not carry the torch from Sultan Kiram,” said Idjirani.       

The Philippine and Malaysian authorities have said the group’s demands should be coursed through diplomatic channels.  “Number one, on the general proposition that our government, the Malaysian government, and the Kiram family would like to have a peaceful resolution to this entire situation, we continue to hold that prayer,” Lacierda said.            

As to what other steps the government will take, Lacierda said, “I am not authorized to speak on that. The DFA will be the office in-charge to lay out our policy on that matter.”

DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said the secretary had a meeting yesterday morning with the Malaysian ambassador.

“We want to know some details regarding what is happening as far as the Filipinos in Sabah are concerned. We are still hoping they will come back to us with official confirmation,” he said.      

The Philippines on Saturday notified Malaysia about the ship arrangement, saying the vessel would stay off Lahad Datu while talks to persuade the Filipinos to return home continue. 

Lacierda said he could not conclude whether the talks with the Kirams had failed or if their continued defiance prompted the DFA to send the ship.            

“Again, our position has always been consistent. We do not wish bloodshed and we... certainly hope that this situation will be resolved peacefully and that continues to be our prayer,” Lacierda said.         

He said the DFA and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II have been authorized to speak on the matter.  

“But, as of now, we would like to hold off any comments. Our priority right now, again, is to end this whole situation peacefully. So pardon me if I will not be able to give you any answer on that point,” he said. Hernandez said Del Rosario also requested the Malaysian government to allow the ship to dock in Lahad Datu to bring food and fetch those who want to go back.

Del Rosario also reiterated his plea for the Filipinos in Sabah to return home for their own safety.

A food blockade is being imposed by the Malaysian authorities around the area, forcing the sultan’s followers to scavenge for food, and they are now reportedly eating root crops. 

Lacierda said the ship would stay there as long as it is needed and “the offer to take care of them is there.”        

“It’s a humanitarian mission. There are confirmed reports of women but we don’t know of children. That’s why we have social workers together with doctors in the boat to ascertain the situation on the ground,” he said.         

The official said the sending of the ship was cleared with the Malaysian government and not with the Kirams. 

He expressed hope the report that the Filipinos would not board the ship was not true.

The royal army of the sultanate has reportedly said they were ready to defend themselves if the Malaysian government would force them out of Sabah.

They said they would only return to the Philippines aboard the Navy ship if they were already dead.      

Asked about the statement of Kiram that he was open to talk in neutral places like Hong Kong, Brunei, or Singapore, the Palace official said it would be up to the DFA to speak on the matter.     

“I think Secretary Del Rosario has already spoken to the foreign minister of Malaysia and I think that’s high-level enough for them. They have been discussing this matter so... with respect, for instance, to the request for extension of deadlines. And, also, Secretary Del Rosario is in touch with the Malaysian ambassador,” he said.     

When asked again if the talks with the Kirams really broke down, Lacierda said: “We firmly believe that we need to see the situation on the ground.”

Sultan’s men won’t leave

Meanwhile, the MNLF said more than a thousand civilian supporters of Kiram and his brother Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram in Sabah have also expressed their firm resolve not to return to the Philippines.  

About 200 relatives of Kiram, including some 30 armed security guards, arrived in Lahad Datu two weeks ago, claiming Sabah belongs to their royal clan based in the province of Sulu.

Malaysian authorities regarded them as armed intruders and have tried to persuade them to leave peacefully, extending a deadline until Tuesday.

The Malaysian Armed Forces has assembled its Marines, Air Force and Navy personnel in Sabah and threatened to use force to dislodge Kiram’s followers.

Idjirani said the position of the sultanate was not to honor the mission of the Philippine government since they were not coordinated for such action.      

“Our policy is always to make the people there feel we have the ‘markabat’ (dignity),” he said.  However, Idjirani clarified Kiram is open to negotiation to settle the issue, provided it would give dignity to the sultanate’s claims to Sabah.  Malaysian police have not said what kind of weapons the Filipinos possessed. 

The sultanate maintained the over 200 people came to Lahad Datu peacefully, and it would be unwise for them to engage in battle a country equipped with submarine, naval ships and a modern military defense system.

Do or die

“But Raja Muda said they would have no other choice but to defend their stay once the Malaysian force would attack them. He said the issue would be settled only after they are all dead,” Idjirani said, citing the statement of Kiram’s younger brother.

Raja Muda is the younger brother of Kiram who led the more than 200 people in the standoff.

The MNLF expressed hope the stalemate would be resolved peacefully while stressing the sultanate of Sulu and Borneo has every right over their own land, which is only being rented by the Malaysians from them.

MNLF political affairs chief Haji Gapul Hajirul, citing their ground monitoring on the ongoing standoff in Sabah, said that around a thousand followers of the sultan, including women and children, have decided to remain in Lahad Datu.

Another source from the MNLF said if Malaysia would use force, their troops in Sabah would move to defend their brothers.

He said the MNLF in Sabah is joined by Tausug people, some already Malaysian citizens, in keeping a close watch on the sultanate army.

The MNLF declined to confirm or deny the reported mobilization of troops in Sabah.

“The issue is not about MNLF, it’s about the Tausugs and the Sultanate,” MNLF spokesman Emmanuel Fontanilla said.

MNLF chairman Nur Misuari had earlier warned Malaysia not to launch any police or military action against the group in Lahad Datu.       

Misuari said he asked Prime Minister Najib Razak not to harm the group, some of whom he claimed were regular members of the MNLF.    

He, however, clarified the MNLF contingent that went with the group of the sultanate has no permission to occupy the disputed territory.             

Binay meets Kiram

Vice President Jejomar Binay confirmed yesterday he met with Kiram at a party hosted by a common friend last Sunday.

Binay clarified the meeting was accidental even as he refused to disclose the location of their meeting.

“I was surprised to see him there. I was introduced to him. He explained their position and I listened to him,” he said.

The vice president said he reiterated to Kiram the position of the Aquino government on the problem in Sabah and renewed his appeal for sobriety.

He said he told Kiram the parties involved should exert all efforts to arrive at a peaceful resolution. – With AP, Jose Rodel Clapano, Roel Pareo, Perseus Echeminada, Jaime Laude, Pia Lee-Brago











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