MANILA, Philippines—All is quiet in Sabah, but tensions linger.
Malacañang, after learning Saturday that all the 224 remaining followers of the sultan of Sulu in Lahad Datu were gearing up for a bloody confrontation with Malaysian forces, remained hopeful that Sultan Jamalul Kiram III would still soften his position.
At press time, the Philippine Navy’s BRP Tagbanua was still in waters off Tawi-Tawi, waiting for clearance from Malaysian authorities to dock in Lahad Datu and ferry the sultan’s followers back to Sulu.
“We have to respect that they are in control of the situation there,” said Cabinet Secretary Almendras of the Malaysian government, when asked at a press conference about the failure of the Aquino administration to convince Prime Minister Najib Razak to allow the entry of what Malacañang described as a ship carrying “humanitarian” help—social workers and medical personnel—to aid the sultan’s followers.
The administration’s pointman in Malaysia—Ambassador Eduardo Malaya—is also ensconced in the capital, Kuala Lumpur, a three-hour plane travel from Sabah.
Asked about the situation in Lahad Datu, Almendras said: “I’m sorry, I do not know exactly what the situation in Lahad Datu is.”
But he confirmed that Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram was still in the Tanduao village on the outskirts of Lahad Datu.
“Right now, the most important thing is we’d want to avoid any more bloodshed. There was an incident yesterday. The President has been very active all throughout. The President was on this all the way till midnight, even beyond midnight,” he said.
“The previous days, it was the same thing. So there will be a time when all of these details can be discussed. We don’t mean to engage in an argument of who said this, who said that,” Almendras said.
“The important thing right now is you want to save lives. You want to prevent further bloodshed. And I believe, I firmly believe that we have, as a government, done everything we possibly can, and continue to do so to prevent the additional bloodshed,” he added.
The Palace inadvertently confirmed that Malaysia may not have been forthright in disclosing the real situation, initially providing the government with wrong information about the exchange of fire.
It was the Kiram family that was the first to announce that 10 of its followers were dead, but the Department of Foreign Affairs said that it had reports that the 10 either surrendered or were arrested.
The Palace, too, had denied any casualty, explaining it had been told that only warning shots were fired when two of sultan’s armed followers tried to break off from the cordoned area. The Palace had denied any gunfight between the sultan’s men and Malaysian forces.
When things got clearer Friday night, the Palace had to announce that “ten to twelve Filipinos and two Malaysians died as the Kiram family and their followers clashed with Malaysian authorities in Lahad Datu, Sabah.”
Asked about the source of the confusion, Almendras said: “The Malaysian ambassador was called by Secretary del Rosario in the afternoon. Our requests were given to the Malaysian ambassador, and the Malaysian ambassador stated those things to us.”
Asked if it was Malaysia that initially fed the Palace wrong information, he said: “At the time that Secretary del Rosario was meeting with the ambassador, he said, ‘we do not have any reports of any death at that time.’ So that was the basis for that statement.”
Agbimudding Kiram had rejected the “small window of opportunity” seen by Malacañang as the last remaining avenue of a “peaceful conclusion” to the standoff.
To which Almendras said: “We are saddened—I am personally saddened by that statement. There are reports contrary to that. I will not claim authenticity to those, either. The President’s statement is very clear.”
“If you had a house, and then somebody comes into your house, armed, how would you react? It might be misinterpreted that we’re defending the other country,” he added.
The circumstances surrounding the gunfight remained shrouded in secrecy, obfuscated by the dearth of information coming from Sabah.
For instance, Almendras did not say whether the Palace was advised by the Malaysian government about their decision to assault the sultan’s followers ahead of the actual operation.
He instead relied on the “official statement of Malaysians”—released by the Malaysian embassy—that “they did not provoke it.”
“There was an incident, there was a reaction, there was a counter-reaction on a series. I beg your indulgence; it’s hard to say anything because things need to be verified. But there are several—there are two versions of the incident yesterday. There is the Kiram version; there is the Malaysian version,” said Almendras.