MANILA, Philippines—While the Philippines has not given up its claim to Sabah, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur has asked Filipino barter traders to comply with fresh Malaysian regulations “notably requiring Filipinos and other foreigners” to present passports or seaman’s books if they wish to do business in the disputed state and the neighboring territory of Labuan.
In a statement, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur said the new guidelines would take effect on April 15, according to a note verbale the Malaysian Foreign Ministry sent to diplomatic missions around Malaysia.
The document states that crews of trade ships or vessels will be required “to produce valid travel documents, i.e. international passport or seaman’s book at all entry ports in Sabah.” The documents are now required before Malaysia issues Seaman Identification Cards (SICs) to Filipino barter traders.
This tightens immigration control in Malaysian ports allowing the barter trade—Sandakan, Tawau and Kudat in Sabah and one in the Federal Territory of Labuan—where Filipino traders previously only had to present a valid medical examination certificate and pay 50 Malaysian Ringgit in order to be issued SICs.
The document added that permanent Customs and Immigration Quarantine posts will start operations in ports in the towns of Kudat and Lahad Datu on Apr. 2, along with an Immigration Control Office at Karakit, Pulau Banggi also in Sabah “where all immigration and customs procedures will be enforced.”
“The Embassy wishes to call the attention of all barter traders and other concerned parties to the new regulation, otherwise they may be significantly inconvenienced if they are found by Malaysian authorities to be in violation,” Consul General Medardo Macaraig said in a statement released by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) on Monday.
Asked why the Philippines was abiding by Malaysia’s immigration regulations despite the country’s standing claim to Sabah, Assistant Secretary Raul Hernandez, the foreign office’s spokesman, said: “They (Malaysians) are in control of the area and they have come up with regulations. And if our people would like to continue on with these arrangements with barter trading, then there is a need to comply with that regulation.”
The DFA has been careful in references to Sabah and Filipino citizens there, ensuring that no official word could be interpreted as a surrender of the Philippines’ territorial claim. The Philippines has also refused to establish permanent consular presence in the territory as such would imply recognition of Sabah as a foreign land.
Citing the new rules, the Embassy said barter traders might only stay in Sabah for seven days, no extensions allowed. Crewmen are also barred from boarding a different boat until they return to their country of origin, according to the Department of Foreign Affairs.
The DFA warned that violators could face charges under Malaysian Immigration Act and new regulations against Trafficking in Persons and Smuggling of Migrants in the country, with penalties ranging from five to 20 years in jail.
Malaysia imposed such stricter immigration and customs regulations in Sabah’s ports while its forces pursued members of the Sulu Royal Army still standing their ground to press for the Sulu Sultanate’s claims to the territory.
The Philippine government has been urging the Sultanate’s followers to return to Sulu to end the bloodshed, with assurances that it has not given up on the country’s claim to resource-rich Sabah.
The Philippine mission in Kuala Lumpur also said consular officials were finally able to visit on Mar. 28 eight Filipinos detained by Malaysian authorities in connection with the fighting between Malaysian forces and the Sulu Royal Army in Lahad Datu.
The Embassy said the visit to Filipino detainees at a prison facility in Tawau was arranged in coordination with the Malaysian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Chambers and Tawau prison officials.
The Philippines has been pressing for Malaysia to grant access for its consular teams to visit Filipino detainees in Sabah citing international law.
“Our team in Sabah has already visited the eight Filipinos detained under the custody of the Malaysian authorities. We are still waiting for the full report from our Embassy which I think will have first to be submitted to the President before we could share with you some details,” Hernandez said yesterday.