MANILA, Philippines — Malacañang was “disturbed’’ by the journey of an armed group from the Sultanate of Sulu to Sabah amid significant developments in the peace negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, but it vowed to uphold national interest in the country’s dormant claim to Malaysia’s eastern state.
University of the Philippines Law Prof. Harry Roque said the journey, which has led to a standoff between the sultanate’s forces and Malaysian authorities, should prod President Aquino to bring the country’s claim to Sabah to an arbitration before an international court.
And unless the country’s claim to Sabah is put to rest, it would always stick out as a “nuisance’’ in Philippine-Malaysian relations, according to Roque.
“We find it disturbing that these incidents are occurring just as we are nearing a deal that will bring peace and development to Muslim Mindanao,’’ Strategic Communication Secretary Ricky Carandang said in a text message when sought for comment.
In talks facilitated by Malaysia, the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front has been hoping to forge a final peace agreement before the end of March in 2013, preparatory to setting up an autonomous Bangsamoro territory.
Last Monday, the President launched a socio-economic program for the 12,000-strong rebel group inside their stronghold in Sultan Kudarat, Maguindanao.
Roque said the entry of Crown Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram and armed members of the sultanate’s royal armed forces into Sabah was symptomatic of a long-pestering issue that the government has ignored in view of Malaysia’s role as facilitator in the peace talks.
“This has been the elephant in the room. This should have been discussed after the Ramos administration,’’ said Roque, director of the UP Law Center’s Institute of International Legal Studies, said by phone.
The Philippine government has the right to press the Sultanate of Sulu’s proprietary claims to Sabah, but several administrations have failed to do so, mainly because Malaysia has been brokering talks with the Moro insurgents, Roque said.
“Under international law, the Sultanate of Sulu should not have been the party pressing this claim, but the Philippine State. This is something that the government seems to have forgotten. They have a right and they’re enforceable under international law,’’ he said.
But if anything good could come out of the standoff in Sabah, it should be the realization by the Philippine government that “there is an interest to be espoused,’’ he said.
Carandang characterized the country’s claim to Sabah as a “delicate and sensitive issue.’’
“And we will deal with it in a way that upholds our national interest. Beyond that it would not be prudent to discuss specifics,’’ Carandang said.
Rajah Mudah and hundreds of his followers from the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo set off for Lahad Datu in Sabah by speedboats last Monday, in what the Prince called a “homecoming.’’
Malaysian security forces surrounded them after they landed on the shore of the village of Tunduao in Lahad Datu.
The entry of the Rajah Mudah’s group into Sabah and the Sabah claim are now being seriously studied by the Office of the President and the Department of Foreign Affairs, according to Budget Secretary Florencio Abad, senior political adviser to the President.
Roque said the President could bring the country’s claim to Sabah before the International Court of Justice in The Hague, and hoped that Malaysia would agree to such an action.
If the government filed a claim with the United Nations to compel China to respect Philippine rights to explore and exploit resources in the West Philippine Sea, it could do the same with its claim to Sabah, Roque said.
“If we’re able to challenge China, why not Malaysia? It doesn’t involve a superpower,’’ he said.
The problem is that such an action would prosper if both parties agree to it. But Roque pointed out that Malaysia has agreed to similar actions in its island disputes with Indonesia and Singapore.
“That’s a good indication Malaysia will agree to bringing it to the ICJ,’’ he said.
Just because it facilitated peace talks with the MILF, Malaysia should not expect the Philippines to stop pressing its claims to the island state on the northern tip of Borneo, Roque said.
“The only foreign affairs issue here is the Sabah claim. Mindanao should be a domestic issue. As far as Malaysia is concerned, it has internationalized the domestic issue thinking that its involvement in the peace process may lead to the issue being forgotten. I don’t think we should fall for that ploy,’’ he said.
“Malaysia should deal with the issue. It should not expect the peace process to affect the country’s Sabah claim,’’ he added. He said since it has interest in the Sabah issue, Malaysia should not have been involved in the peace talks from the start.
Both Malaysia and the Philippines are claiming ownership of Sabah. The dispute, however, can’t be brought before ICJ unless both sides agree to this.
Foreign affairs officials said that the government has not completely abandoned its claim to the Malaysian state. The claim has been put in the back burner because of the Philippines’ bilateral relations with Malaysia, which has been brokering talks with the Moro rebels.
The Philippines made its claim to Sabah in 1962 after the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu and North Borneo gave the government, then under the late president Diosdado Macapagal, legal authority to negotiate on their behalf.
The Sultanate of Sulu obtained Sabah from the Sultanate of Brunei as a gift for helping put down a rebellion. It leased Sabah to the British North Borneo Co. in 1878, but Sabah became part of Malaysia when it gained independence in 1963.
While Sabah became part of Malaysia in 1963, Kuala Lumpur pays an annual rent of 5,300 ringgit ($1,600) to the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
Malacañang declined comment on the possibility of sending an emissary to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, the acknowledged leader of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo who issued a royal decree authorizing Rajah Mudah, his younger brother, to be in Sabah.
Jamalul, who is in Manila undergoing dialysis treatment, said he had written Mr. Aquino about the sultanate’s “noble dream’’ when he assumed office in 2010. He said he was open to sitting down with officials of the administration.
“We’d like to defer comment on that, and the DFA will be the one who will give us updates on the situation in Sabah if and when they deem it to be necessary,’’ Undersecretary Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said over government-run radio.