MANILA, Philippines – Philippine officials have asked Malaysia to clarify news reports that Filipinos in Malaysia’s eastern Sabah state were being mistreated while authorities crack down on Filipino gunmen staking a claim on the resource-rich region.
The Department of Foreign Affairs on Sunday also reiterated a call for Malaysia to give Philippine diplomats full access to Filipinos who are being held outside the part of Sabah where Malaysian forces are battling followers of a sultan from the southern Philippines who revived a historical claim in the area.
About 200 Filipinos, dozens of them armed, barged into Sabah in Borneo around Feb. 9, sparking assaults by Malaysian troops after efforts to coax the intruders to leave peacefully were ignored. The gunmen fatally shot two police officers on March 1. At least 53 Filipino gunmen and eight Malaysian policemen have died in the conflict, according to Malaysian officials.
The Philippine government condemned the intrusion and called on the gunmen to surrender. But as the Sabah conflict drags on, it has tested the relations of the Southeast Asian countries.
Malaysia has previously brokered peace talks between Manila and a large Muslim rebel group, and the two countries are founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The Philippine Foreign Affairs Department said in a statement that it “views with grave concern” Philippine news reports alleging Filipinos have been rounded up in Lahad Datu, the coastal district where the gunmen are believed to be hiding, and other Sabah areas.
“The allegations are alarming and should be properly and immediately addressed by concerned authorities,” the statement said.
There was no immediate reaction from Malaysian officials.
But Malaysian police said 85 men and women, held without trial under a security law, were being investigated for their links to the gunmen.
Malaysian national police chief Ismail Omar said a teenager was shot dead Sunday during an ongoing operation to flush out the gunmen. Security personnel were questioning five people when they saw some movement in the bushes, prompting them to fire because they feared they were under attack, he said. They later found the body of the boy, aged between 12 and 15.
A man was also injured in the violence, Ismail said, adding that authorities were still trying to identify the two.
New York-based Human Rights Watch echoed a call by U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to ensure the protection of civilians and for humanitarian access to help those affected by the violence.
Malaysia should provide accurate information on what has transpired and either charge or release dozens of suspects detained under a new security law, said Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Asia deputy-director.