MANILA, Philippines—The Philippines expressed “grave concern” Sunday over allegations that innocent Filipinos in Malaysia are being abused after being caught up in fighting in Sabah with followers of an obscure sultanate.
Fifty-three militants and eight police officers have been shot dead since a group of armed Filipino Islamists arrived in the state last month to resurrect long-dormant land claims of a self-proclaimed Philippine sultan.
Local press reports in the Philippines have claimed that innocent Filipinos were being beaten and shot by Malaysian security forces as part of the crackdown against followers of self-declared Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III. Sabah police have denied the allegations.
The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs said government agencies will document these latest reports as it called on Malaysia to clarify the alleged incidents.
“The Department of Foreign Affairs views with grave concern the alleged rounding up of community members… in Sabah and the alleged violations of human rights reported in the media by some Filipinos,” a statement said.
“The allegations are alarming and should be properly and immediately addressed by concerned authorities,” said the statement.
Sabah police chief Hamza Taib, when asked about reports in the Philippine media quoting Filipino nationals recounting abuse by Malaysian security forces, denied these reports. “There is no such thing,” he said on Sunday.
President Benigno Aquino’s spokeswoman Abigail Valte also voiced concern following the reports.
“This kind of treatment on our Filipino citizens or Filipino nationals is unacceptable,” Valte told reporters.
She said the Philippines had long called for “humane treatment” for Kiram’s followers who entered Sabah last month in an attempt to claim the Malaysian state for the sultanate.
“What more our Filipino nationals who are not in any way involved in the situation in Sabah? They have just gotten caught up because they are residing there. That is unacceptable,” she said.
So far 85 people have been arrested for possible links to the intruders in Sabah, Malaysian officials have said.
Valte reiterated the Philippine government’s appeal for the followers of Kiram to lay down their arms and surrender.
But she also reiterated that the Philippines was asking Malaysian authorities to let Filipino diplomats have full access to arrested Filipinos to provide them with consular assistance.
She also recalled that Aquino had personally asked Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak earlier to ensure that the estimated 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah would not be persecuted despite the crisis.
Filipino Muslims from the southern Philippines have been crossing the maritime border with Sabah freely for centuries, to find work and to trade. Many have lived in Sabah for years.