OZAMIZ CITY – At least 93 civil society groups, mainly from the Philippines and Malaysia, have called for the declaration a “humanitarian ceasefire” for the sake of affected civilians in Sabah.
This appeal is contained in a joint statement titled “Standoff in Lahad Datu: Engage in dialogue now with all stakeholders to resolve the crisis peacefully” which was initiated by the Davao-based group Initiatives for International Dialogue (IID) and the Kuala Lumpur-based human rights organization Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).
The appeal is directed at Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak, and Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, one of the competing claimants to the royal throne of the Sulu sultanate.
As of March 8 at least 15 Malaysian and 59 Filipino groups and networks have signed the joint statement. They are joined by eight international groups, another nine from other Asian countries, two based in Germany and five Asian intellectuals.
Among the Philippine signatories is the Mindanao Peace Weavers (MPW), a network of nine peace advocacy organizations that has engaged both government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) on the question of peacemaking in Mindanao.
An immediate humanitarian ceasefire, the groups explained, will ensure the safety of women, children, elderly and other vulnerable persons in the affected area.
They also called for the setup of “safe zones” where humanitarian organizations and relief agencies can install facilities where those who require immediate medical care can access the necessary professional services.
The groups also said that they “are also very concerned with the lack of real-time information with respect to what has actually taken place so far in Lahad Datu.”
“Up to this point, the information received through the Malaysian news media lacked transparency and created unnecessary rumors and assumptions about the situation. The people has right to get the information on the on-going issues in Sabah,” the groups stressed.
They urged that immediate measures must be taken “to secure the safety of journalists who chose to access the area at all times to ensure fair reporting and dissemination of information to the general public.”
They further urged that “the human rights of everyone involved (in the siege) are respected and protected especially civilians from Lahad Datu, Semporna and nearby villages.”
The groups appealed on Aquino, Najib and Kiram “to disavow all forms of violence” but instead hold a trilateral dialogue as the primary mechanism to put a peaceful end to the siege.
In what appears to be a specific appeal to the Malaysian government, the groups urged that “using excessive force and armed violence to end the prevailing conflict” must be avoided.
Malaysian security forces have launched a massive crackdown beginning March 5 on the followers of Kiram holed up mostly in Lahad Datu amid concerns on the disproportionate use of force like aerial bombings.
“We fervently dissuade all the principals involved from brinkmanship by instead living up to your respective legacies as genuine leaders of your people with honor and dignity,” the joint statement emphasized.
During the early days of the standoff, Kiram had shrugged off calls by Aquino and Najib to order his brother, Agbimuddin, to take his so-called “royal army” home, vowing to fight to the end in a bid to reclaim Sabah in behalf of the heirs of the Sulu sultanate.
It was only on Thursday, March 7, that Kiram ordered a unilateral ceasefire amid a massive crackdown launched by Malaysian security forces on his followers.
Najib has refused to reciprocate Kiram’s ceasefire as Malaysian authorities are reporting good gains in their roundup of the so-called “royal army” in Lahad Datu.
“We all can’t afford that this will escalate into a grave humanitarian crisis spilling over into other nearby villages aside from Lahad Datu and Semporna…,” the joint statement read.
“We believe the situation in Lahad Datu requires swift and peaceful intervention… Time is of the essence,” it added.