PH mission, media barred from Sabah evacuation center
LAHAD DATU—Malaysian guards on Friday rebuffed an attempt by a Philippine humanitarian mission to talk with Filipinos detained in the wake of the Sabah dispute, saying the group needed a written permission from Kuala Lumpur.
Elsewhere, Sabah police arrested eight Filipinos who sailed into the disputed territory carrying 300 water gallons and cash amounting to P369,000.
At the Cenderawasih gym here, the Malaysian security personnel demanded that the five-man humanitarian and consular assistance team (HCAT) dispatched by the Philippine government first show a permit before they can get in. The Filipino team was comprised of diplomats.
Cenderawasih is located at Felda Sahabat, a vast palm oil plantation where most of the fighting between the so-called “royal army” of the sultanate of Sulu and the Malaysian security forces has erupted.
Two of the diplomats spoke with the official in charge of the evacuation center, asking if the team could go inside.
“I told him that we just want to send food and water to the Filipino evacuees. He said we should first submit a written permission from their government,” one of the HCAT members told Filipino reporters covering the Sabah crisis.
Turned away again
The Sulu sultanate has a long-standing territorial claim to Sabah, the former British North Borneo, which was federated into Malaysia in 1963.
The Inquirer and news teams from GMA 7 and ABS-CBN networks were with the humanitarian mission outside the gate, hoping to get access to the detained Filipinos.
Turned away, the group drove to Embara Budi, 10 minutes away, to also try to get into the evacuation center there. But they were also stopped by a police checkpoint on a street leading to the evacuation center. No explanation was given.
ABS-CBN’s Henry Omaga-Diaz reported that the Filipino diplomats in Tawau also could not openly provide consular assistance to the Filipinos there because they had no permission from the Malaysian government.
Last Tuesday, the INQUIRER and GMA 7 teams were allowed inside the Embara Budi evacuation center only to take footages but not to interview the evacuees.
Investigation going on
Last Monday, the HCAT “found a way to enter” Cenderawasih but was asked to leave after a few minutes, one diplomat said.
The team was able to take photographs and talk to some Filipinos who told them they were given adequate food and medical supplies. They were mostly residents of villages where fighting had taken place.
The Malaysia Daily newspaper earlier reported Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Amab as saying that Malaysia could not grant Philippine officials “legal access” to the Filipinos arrested because “the investigation on suspicions that they provided help or security information to the terrorists is continuing.”
Elsewhere, eight male Filipinos carrying water gallons and cash were arrested shortly after midnight on Friday in Sungai Bilis village in Felda Sahabat. Sabah Police Commissioner Hamza Taib said the authorities were investigating why the men came to Sabah’s east coast.
The eight Filipinos, aged from 17 to 29, were arrested at around 12:15 a.m. after they arrived on a speedboat, Hamza said at a press conference.
Malaysia’s Security Operations Act, widely criticized by the international community, allows the government to detain suspects for 28 days without trial.
The Philippine government has not been granted access to the nearly 100 Filipinos arrested on suspicion they were abetting the group of Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, the leader of a group that recently went to Sabah claiming the territory belonged to the Sulu sultanate.
Hamza said the death toll in Kiram’s group was now 61, with the discovery of 15 bodies in three graves in the village of Tanduao. He said about 10 more bodies could be retrieved in the village of Tanjung Batu.
Hamza said that following a postmortem on the bodies, Malaysia would call the Philippine authorities and ask if they would want to collect the bodies. If there was no response within three days from the Philippines, the Malaysian government would bury the dead.
In Manila, Abraham Idjirani, a spokesperson for Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, told reporters after meeting with officials of the National Bureau of Investigation that he was asked to narrate the events surrounding the Sabah incursion.
He said the NBI questioned him about the possible collusion of some personalities in the episode.
“I maintained no conspiracy and no financier,” Idjirani said.
3rd party inquiry
Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago proposed that the Philippines and Malaysia agree on a third party to conduct an inquiry on the spate of violence in Sabah to avoid further bloodshed.
Santiago also commended President Benigno Aquino III for his “sober and prudent” strategy on the issue.
“I commend him (Aquino) for his caution… You cannot just run to war on an emotional burst of energy. You have to consider all aspects, particularly the world public opinion,” she told reporters on the sidelines of the convention of the Association of Nursing Service Administrators of the Philippines.
Santiago said that if necessary, she would file a resolution in the Senate proposing that the Philippines invite Malaysia to agree on the entry of a third party to conduct an inquiry “on the alleged violent acts” that had occurred in Sabah.
She said Malaysia’s move to expel Filipinos from Sabah before any talks on settling the dispute “appears to be unacceptable under international law.”
In her speech, Santiago said the Philippines may use “limited force” against Malaysia if the lives of Filipinos caught in the middle were in danger.
While the use of force is prohibited under international law, there are certain conditions that allow a state to use limited force to protect its nationals, she said.
In Malacañang, presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said measures were in place to protect Filipinos in Sabah and render humanitarian assistance to those who have returned to Sulu.
“Our main concern is the 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah,” Lacierda said. “For those under the custody of the Malaysian authorities, we continue to ask for consular access. It is the reason why the Philippine Embassy has people on the ground in Lahad Datu.”
Social Welfare Secretary Dinky Soliman confirmed that Manila had sent a “rapid response team” to Sabah composed of Foreign Undersecretary Jesus Yabes and Social Welfare Undersecretary Paris Taradji. With reports from Michael Lim Ubac and Nancy C. Carvajal