The Philippines on Friday asked Malaysia to give the followers of the sultan of Sulu four more days to leave Sabah peacefully as the Filipino heirs to the resource-rich state began to review their position and plan their next move to reclaim the territory formerly known as North Borneo.
Malaysia had given an armed group led by a brother of the Sulu sultan until Friday to break up camp in Tanduao village in the coastal town of Lahad Datu, Sabah, and go home peacefully or be arrested and deported to the Philippines.
Emissaries from the administration of President Benigno Aquino III had been talking with advisers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to convince him to recall his followers, who were surrounded by Malaysian police, army and naval forces just waiting for orders to flush them out.
A brother of the sultan was reported as traveling to Manila from Zamboanga City to talk to him on Thursday night about the withdrawal from Sabah.
It was unclear on Friday whether Esmail Kiram II had seen and talked with the sultan, but Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario told reporters that he had phoned Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman and asked for a four-day extension of the deadline for the expulsion of the armed group led by Agbimuddin Kiram, another brother of the sultan, from Sabah.
“I’ve spoken to the foreign minister this morning. I called him because the effort to have the Filipinos withdraw from Sabah on a peaceful basis is still a work in progress,” Del Rosario said in a brief talk with reporters.
“And even as we’re talking to the family, we’re quite not there yet. I’ve asked him for another extension and I think they’re considering it and they’re supposed to come back to me this afternoon,” Del Rosario said, referring to his Malaysian counterpart.
He said Aman “will endorse” to his government the Philippines’ request for an extension of the deadline.
As of press time Friday night, Malaysia had yet to respond to Del Rosario’s request.
The sultan’s family called a news conference on Friday to announce that Agbimuddin and his group would stay in Sabah until called home.
Malacañang appealed to the sultan’s family to reconsider the decision, warning that it could lead to a “deterioration” of the situation in Tanduao.
“I’m disappointed to learn that the message the emissary is carrying is for them to stay put as this will not help diffuse the situation,” Interior Secretary Mar Roxas said, talking to the INQUIRER by phone on his way to the presidential Palace for a 3:30 p.m. meeting with President Aquino.
Roxas, a senior member of the Cabinet security cluster, described the decision of the sultan’s family as “unfortunate.”
“The government has been trying to facilitate the sending of an emissary from the Kiram family to Sabah precisely to alleviate and deescalate the situation,” he said.
“I am disappointed at this news because our fellow Filipinos are presently in a precarious situation,” he said, referring to Agbimuddin’s armed group holed up in Tanduao.
“Our utmost priority should be the peaceful and stable resolution of this immediate situation,” he said.
The Kirams said they were considering raising their dispute with Malaysia over Sabah to the United Nations and to the International Court of Justice, but Roxas said: “All talks about historical claims and national territories and borders can only positively happen and be fruitful in a stable atmosphere, not in this situation of tension and duress. So this would not be a helpful development.”
The President met with Cabinet members in charge of the peace process in Mindanao at the Palace at 3:30 p.m.
Mr. Aquino called the meeting for a discussion of the progress in the peace process with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, which signed a preliminary peace agreement with the government last October, but Roxas said the meeting would most likely be turned into a discussion of the Sabah standoff.
“We must separate the claim of the Kiram family and or the Republic of the Philippines from this act (standoff), which strains the ties between the two countries,” Roxas said.
Roxas appealed to the Kirams to support the Aquino administration’s stand for a “deescalation of the situation” to ensure the safety of Agbimuddin and his men.
He said news of the Kirams’ decision could give the signal for the Malaysian forces to move in on Agbimuddin’s group.
Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin told reporters yesterday that the Sulu sultanate’s claim to Sabah may have legal grounds, as Malaysia continues to pay rent to the sultanate for use of the territory used to be known as North Borneo.
But Gazmin said the government was still studying whether to press the claim.
He said Jamalul’s followers had no right to occupy Sabah, especially without permission from the Philippine government.
Gazmin said he and the chief of the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Gen. Emmanuel Bautista, were talking with their Malaysian counterparts about a peaceful resolution of the standoff in Sabah.
“We agreed this should be solved amicably, peacefully, without any violence whatsover,” Gazmin said.
He said the deployment of Navy ships to the Sulu Sea was aimed at preventing the trafficking of undocumented Filipinos to Sabah.
The Philippine request for an extension of the Malaysian deadline for Agbimuddin’s group to leave Sabah could be granted.
“The Malaysians have been very cooperative,” Gazmin said. “[T]hey moved the Wednesday deadline to Friday. Probably they saw from our gestures that we are trying to resolve the issue [peacefully].”
Gazmin said an investigation had been opened to find out how the Sulu sultan’s forces acquired weapons and who could be financing them.
Come and join
The Sulu sultan’s followers crossed to Sabah and created a crisis reportedly because they felt left out of the peace process with the MILF.
But the government peace panel has been calling on the Moro royals to unite and help build the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region in Muslim Mindanao.
“It would be good if you can [tell us what role you want to play]. Let us make the engagement more positive and constructive,” the panel’s chief, Miriam Coronel-Ferrer told the members of the Maharadjah Tabunaway Descendants Council of the Philippines during a peace forum in Cotabato City on Feb. 9.
The council counts the royal houses of Rajah Buayan and Kabuntalan in Maguindanao, Dungun in Tawi-Tawi, Sibugay in Zamboanga del Sur, and Kapatagan in Lanao del Norte.
Ferrer said that as “traditional leaders,” the royalty should be involved in the decision-making for the establishment of the Bangsamoro.
She said the royals could present their proposals during the consultations being conducted by the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.
The 15-member commission is drafting the basic law that would establish the Bangsamoro as replacement for the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
Call for unity
Yesterday a member of the Sulu royal clan called on the legitimate heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo to unite for a peaceful resolution of the standoff in Sabah.
“Nothing will be settled by raising our voices separately. We need to be one,” Datu Harun Narrazid of Bataraza, Palawan, said.
Narrazid, a descendant of the 27th sultan of Sulu, Harun Al-Rashid, said he was not asking his relatives to take up arms but to work together for their claim to Sabah to attract the attention it deserved.
He emphasized the importance of diplomacy to asserting the claim.
“Sabah never belonged to Malaysia,” Narrazid said by phone. “But this claim of ours, on behalf of all Filipinos, would never be given favorable resolution unless we stand united.” With reports from DJ Yap in Manila and Julie Alipala, Jeoffrey Maitem and Charlie Señase, Inquirer Mindanao