Revival of Sabah claim under review

Aurea Calica - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - As the exodus of Filipinos fleeing the violence in Sabah continues, the country’s dormant claim on the territory is now under review by a battery of top-notch lawyers hired by the government.

This was revealed by Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras in an interview with The STAR yesterday.

“Are they kidding when they say we have given up our claim? We’re paying so much for the lawyers to study the claim,” Almendras said.

He stressed that everything would have to be done based on international laws and not by force or violence.

Leading the rites yesterday commemorating the Jabidah massacre in Corregidor, President Aquino reiterated that a roadmap to a peaceful resolution of the Sabah dispute and not just the standoff is being drawn up.

He noted that both the Jabidah massacre and the standoff were linked to the claim over Sabah.

“The resolution of this issue will begin not through speculation, opinion or guesswork, but by pinpointing indisputable truths. My duty is to dig into history to find truths and from there set the direction that the nation should take with regard to the Sabah issue. I’ll make sure that direction will not lead us to violence.”

The President has ordered the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice and the Office of the Executive Secretary to research and recommend a roadmap towards a peaceful resolution of the Sabah dispute.

For his part, acting Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao governor Mujiv Hataman said they were continuously talking with all parties, including the Kirams, to end the standoff.

Hataman said Sultan Jamalul Kiram III’s younger brother Agbimuddin Kiram, who led the standoff, had asked him to fetch them from Lahad Datu after the firefight broke out on March 1.

“At that time, he wanted to be fetched. But I’m sure those in Taguig would say I wasn’t telling the truth,” Hataman said, referring to the sultan and other family members living in Maharlika Village in Taguig.

Hataman also said the commemoration of the Jabidah massacre should help Filipinos learn from history and work together for peace in Mindanao. 

Avoiding the issue

For the sultanate, President Aquino’s dismissing the Sabah incursion as motivated by self-interest was his way of avoiding the issue.

“That’s the only thing he could say to divert the issue. What Sultan Jamalul Kiram III wants is to have a personal legacy. If there is claim, it must redound to the Filipino people. If that is a personal interest, the sultan’s intention is to establish a legacy for the people of Sulu and the entire nation,” sultanate spokesman Abraham Idjirani said.

“What is wrong with personal interest if you think of the entire nation?”

More than 300 followers of the sultanate crossed over to Lahad Datu in Sabah last Feb. 12 to renew a centuries-old claim on the territory. After failing to convince the group to leave, Malaysian forces launched an assault on March 5, forcing hundreds of Filipinos to sail back to Mindanao.

In a speech on Sunday before graduating cadets of the Philippine Military Academy, the President affirmed the country’s claim on Sabah, but stressed his administration would pursue it through dialogue. Aquino said his administration is employing the same tack in dealing with the West Philippine Sea dispute with China.

But Idjirani said the President’s statement showed his lack of understanding of the Sabah issue. “For a leader to really understand the situation, one must have an insight of the history of the territory, especially territories with historical connections to citizens,” Idjirani said.

He stressed, however, the sultanate remains open – but skeptical – to Aquino’s offer of peaceful negotiation.

“If someone says something, he must mean it,” he said.

Idjirani also said the arrest of more than 30 sultanate fighters off Tawi-Tawi and the filing of criminal charges against them ran counter to government’s offer of negotiation.

“Negotiation is accepted but what did they do to the 38 intercepted? They filed cases. Is this part of confidence building measures? We have doubts on the action of the government,” he said.

He also said that Agbimuddin is still in Sabah with only 168 fighters.

“They have gone on guerilla warfare. That is the only way to survive,” he said.

Speak out

As more Filipinos continue to flee the violence in Sabah, civil society groups urged the leadership of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao to speak openly against alleged abuses committed by Malaysian forces against Filipinos in the territory.

Members of the Mindanao People’s Caucus decried the ARMM’s seeming silence on the issue as well as its alleged kowtowing to what the group considered Malcañang’s ineffective approach to dealing with the problem.

“The Sabah crisis has been raging and repeated accounts from refugees of abuses and killings by Malaysian authorities yet the ARMM leadership had never made known its side of the issue,” an MPC member who declined to be named said.

The MPC member said the ARMM officials led by Hataman have been focused on relief operations “but have not addressed the real issue that caused the exodus of these people” to Tawi-Tawi from Sabah.

But the ARMM OIC, according to the MPC member, still has the chance to show which side he is loyal to.

Hataman, however, denied the accusation, saying he had even initiated a dialogue with the Kiram family in a bid to end the crisis. He also said the government began documenting cases of rights abuses in Sabah after he made a request. “We don’t rush things here,” he said.

Members of Anak Mindanao (Amin), a party-list to which Hataman belongs, have also expressed disappointment over the ARMM leadership’s handling of the issue. They said Hataman had been an outspoken champion of Mindanao until his appointment as OIC chairman of ARMM.

Hataman and the five governors of the provinces under ARMM were standing behind President Aquino when the latter was making a televised appeal to followers of Kiram to surrender or face criminal charges.

Meanwhile, the militant Kilusang Mayo Uno said the government’s latest call for talks on the Sabah issue was a face-saving ploy.

“Aquino cheered on when the Malaysian government was launching a massacre of Filipinos in Sabah and was violating Filipinos’ human rights. Now, he wants to project himself as a peace advocate and a patriot. What a hypocrite,” KMU secretary general Roger Soluta said.

“What will he say when he faces Malaysia? He hasn’t issued a clear stand on the country’s territorial claim to Sabah. He will most likely formally surrender the country’s long-standing claim to the disputed territory,” he said.           

Soluta said what Aquino would likely discuss with Kuala Lumpur were the cleanup operations in Sabah as well as how to round up and punish Filipinos involved in the clashes in the territory. The KMU also said the government has become Malaysia’s jailers of Filipinos fleeing Sabah. With Mike Frialde, Mayen Jaymalin, Roel Pareño




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