MANILA, Philippines—Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Friday Malaysia’s continuing payment of lease for Sabah bolsters the Philippine claim over the territory.
“You see, the sultanate is being paid 5,000 ringgit up to now,” said Gazmin, referring to the nominal yearly compensation the heirs to the Sultanate of Sulu receive from Malaysia under a long-standing agreement.
“So if you are being paid then there’s claim,” he said in a press briefing.
Dozens of followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III sailed over to neighboring Sabah island more than a week ago to assert their centuries-old claim over the area.
Also among their demands is additional compensation.
Malaysian authorities surrounded the group, which is believed to be made up of anywhere between 80 and 400 people, and a stand-off has since been in place while negotiations continue.
Kuala Lumpur has given the 300 followers of the sultan led by his brother, Agbimuddin Kiram, until Friday to decide whether to leave on their own, or be rounded up and deported.
But Gazmin said that while the claims of royal family could be valid, it is not right to send an armed group to Sabah to reclaim their territory.
President Benigno Aquino in his first public comments on the issue Thursday said: “Going there with arms is not the way to resolve this.”
“When you brandish arms, naturally the other side has only one way to respond to such a challenge,” said Aquino.
But Gazmin said Manila is still studying the Philippines’ dormant claims to Sabah.
At the same time, Gazmin said that he and his Malaysian counterpart Datuk Seri Zahid Hamidi have agreed to settle the situation “amicably, peacefully, without any violence whatsoever.”
“We’re trying to prevent that, as much as possible,” he said. “The Malaysians have been very cooperative.”
The Islamic Sultanate of Sulu once controlled parts of Borneo, including the site of the stand-off, as well as southern Philippine islands.
The sultanate leased northern Borneo to Europeans in the 1870s. While the sultanate’s authority gradually faded as Western colonial powers exerted their influence over the region, it continued to receive lease payments for Sabah.
Estimates of the number of the armed men has varied. Last week, Malaysian Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein put the number at between 80 to 100 gunmen.
But the sultan’s spokesman, Abraham Idjirani, said in Manila there were about 400 members of the group, including 20 with arms.
Idjirani said Kiram, who lives in a Manila suburb, gave the men the authority to reside in Sabah and they were determined to resist efforts to expel them.
The sultan’s men in Sabah were instructed not to fire first, Idjirani added.
“But if the Malaysian military will attack us, we will be left with no choice but to defend ourselves,” he quoted Kiram as saying. With Michael Lim Ubac, Philippine Daily Inquirer; Agence France-Presse