LAHAD DATU, Malaysia–Malaysia’s top security officials on Thursday said they were verifying with their Philippine counterparts the reports that Filipinos in Sabah were maltreated by their security forces.
“We are checking with the authorities there in the Philippines,” Malaysian Police Chief Ismail Omar said.
The Malaysian Foreign Ministry denied on Wednesday allegations of human rights violations reported by the Inquirer on March 9 and 10, saying the reports were “unjustified and unsubstantiated” and were fabricated by people who intended to “damage and strain the good and close relations between Malaysia and the Republic of the Philippines.”
Ismail and Malaysian military chief Gen. Zulkifeli Zin spoke at a joint news conference here late Thursday, with the police chief saying that Malaysian authorities would also verify with the Philippines the claim of the spokesman of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, Abraham Idjirani, that only 10 combatants from the sultanate had been killed in fighting Malaysian security forces since the standoff erupted into violence on March 1.
Idjirani said in Manila that most of the fatalities reported by the Malaysian security forces were civilians.
The Philippine government is investigating Filipino refugees’ claims that they suffered abuses at the hands of Malaysian policemen.
Following the Malaysian Foreign Ministry’s denial of the allegations, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said Thursday that the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) was documenting the refugees’ complaints.
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez told reporters that Malaysia had not officially communicated its denial to the DFA.
Social Welfare Secretary Corazon Soliman said on Wednesday that the Philippines would file a protest over the abuses after the investigation and the DFA would recommend where the protest would be filed.
The DSWD and the DFA have set up a joint humanitarian and welfare desk in Sabah to help Filipinos displaced by the fighting there and assist those who need documents to return to the Philippines.
Soliman said four evacuation centers have been established in federal plantations in Sabah with a total of 1,464 Filipino, Indonesian and Timorese evacuees.
Hundreds of Filipinos have fled the fighting and police abuses in Sabah, and Sen. Loren Legarda has warned of a looming humanitarian crisis as more refugees are expected to flood into southern Philippines.
Legarda, chairperson of the Senate foreign relations committee, called on the government on Thursday to do everything within its powers to prevent such a crisis, including seeking assistance from such international organizations as the Red Cross and the Red Crescent.
“As our government is trying to provide humanitarian and consular assistance to Filipinos involved and are caught in the conflict in Sabah, many of those who have voluntarily evacuated from Sabah are proceeding to Sulu, Tawi-Tawi or Basilan, and with the influx of evacuees, there is a greater need for food, water, and temporary shelter,” Legarda said in a statement.
Legarda said the government must pursue the humanitarian efforts “without abandoning reports of inhumane treatment of Filipinos in Sabah because these allegations need to be immediately verified by our government and action should be undertaken to put the alleged atrocities under check.”
She said the Red Cross could help validate the reports of police abuses in Sabah.
A party-list lawmaker on Thursday said the government should stop calling the Filipinos returning from Sabah “balikbayans” and instead call them “refugees.”
Term undermines claim
Soliman has said the Filipinos fleeing Sabah will be referred to as balikbayans.
But calling the Filipinos from Sabah balikbayans, a term usually reserved for overseas workers returning to the Philippines, would do nothing to ease their plight, according to Party-list Rep. Luz Ilagan of Gabriela.
The term also undermines the Philippine claim to Sabah, Ilagan said.—With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Cynthia D. Balana, Norman Bordadora and Leila B. Salaverria