Burned by the backburner

COMMONSENSE - Marichu A. Villanueva1 - The Philippine Star

Since he took office in June 2010, it was only last week that President Benigno “Noy” Aquino III finally made a state visit to Malaysia. By tradition, every new President (and new foreign minister for that matter) goes around the capitals of Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) member-nations to make state visits.

During the first three years in office, President Aquino made state visits on various dates to ASEAN capitals of Singapore, Vietnam, Thailand, Brunei, Indonesia, Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. For unclear reason/s, President Aquino has left out Malaysia.

But from what we gathered, President Aquino intentionally skipped Malaysia because it’s been brokering the peace negotiations of the Philippine government with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

It was only on October 15, 2012 when the Philippine government succeeded in getting the MILF to initial the Framework Agreement on Bangsamoro (FAB). Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak came to witness the signing ceremonies at Malacañang. It was also Najib’s first state visit to Manila since elected in April 2009.

More than a year after, the Philippine government was able to complete with the MILF the entire annexes to the FAB from wealth and power-sharing to normalization process. The final peace pact with the MILF is being set to be formally signed this month. Thus, it was no surprise when the Palace announced that President Aquino was making a visit to Kuala Lumpur.

It was seen as a gesture of gratitude for Malaysia’s support to the peace process in Mindanao. Days before he left for Kuala Lumpur, talks spread that P-Noy’s trip might include talks about the longstanding dispute over proprietary claims of the Sultan of Sulu with Malaysian government authorities.

The country’s Sabah claim was literally reignited when the Kiram family led by the late Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, took up arms in March 2013 to force ownership of the piece of lands they inherited centuries earlier. According to spokesman Abraham Idjirani of the Sulu sultanate, the Malaysian government pays Manila a measly annual rent of P75,000 for a 30,000-square-mile property.

To assuage the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, President Aquino formed last year a study group of legal and history experts led by the Department of Justice to look into the Sabah ownership and proprietary claims of the heirs of the Sultan.

After several days of bloody fighting, the family and followers of the Sultan were driven out from their occupied lands. To date though, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu insist they have kept their foothold in Lahad Datu in Sabah contrary to claims of Malaysian authorities.

However, President Aquino himself declared days before his trip to Kuala Lumpur that the Sabah territorial issue would not be part of his official agenda when he meets the Malaysian king. And neither will he discuss this matter with his counterpart Prime Minister Najib.

A little birdie chirped that P-Noy had to make this statement because he did not quite agree with the recommendations of the study group. Based on legal and historical facts, the study group reportedly rendered the opinion the Philippines must pursue the country’s ownership of Sabah and press for the proprietary claims of the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.

Taking cue from P-Noy, Philippine ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya subsequently confirmed there would be no official talks on the Sabah issue during the state visit in Kuala Lumpur. Malaya, who previously served as official spokesperson of the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA), was quoted in his briefing to media that the Philippine government has adopted a “backburner” policy concerning the Sabah case. When pressed what the “back-burner” policy entails, Malaya said: “You have to ask the policymakers in Manila on that. We are implementers here of our policy already set.”

Back-burner our foot! What did P-Noy bring back when he returned from Kuala Lumpur to Manila the next day?

At the joint press conference held at the Putrajaya last Friday, Prime Minister Najib disclosed he had turned over documents to his state visitor something to bring home for study. I don’t think the President was blindsided by Najib’s stunt. For sure, DFA Secretary Alberto del Rosario warned P-Noy that the Malaysian Prime Minister may pull such stunt, though it may be at the expense of the Philippine leader.

Najib put one over P-Noy. It would be recalled Prime Minister Najib also came under severe criticism from his own backyard for the handling of the raid last year in Lahad Datu. This came after the Sultan’s followers caught the Malaysian police by surprise. 

Rubbing it in, Najib told during the same joint press conference the Malaysian government wants the Philippines to set up a consulate in Kota Kinabalu — the capital of Sabah. This is like giving up its claim over the disputed territory since consulates are established only in foreign countries.

President Aquino retorted the DFA is “re-examining” the territorial and diplomatic issues on this matter. Meanwhile, Malaysian authorities continue their crackdown against Filipinos who are classified as illegal aliens in Sabah.

Like a dutiful student, P-Noy announced in his arrival statement in Manila that same day he will order a new study using the documents that Najib gave him which obviously assert Malaysia’s ownership of Sabah. Is P-Noy now burning the backburner policy?

Other than this stinker on the Sabah issue, P-Noy’s trip focused as promised on promoting Mindanao for investment and tourism destination now that peace beckons on the horizon.

Perhaps a foreboding of things to come in Mindanao, on the day he left for his first state visit to Malaysia last February 27, a major power plant conked out due to tripping incident and caused Mindanao-wide blackout. The entire Mindanao grid is again short of supply of electricity.

Until the power supply in the Mindanao grid is restored, rotating blackouts — ranging from six to nine hours — will continue. With just 847 days left of his term, P-Noy must not allow the new power projects in the pipeline to get also burned at the backburner of inaction.

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