Gov't to take Sabah claim to int'l court after review
MANILA, Philippines - The Philippine government is ready to bring the country’s Sabah claim before international courts even as it gathers evidence to buttress its position while pursuing dialogue to end the violence in the territory.
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda announced the development in a press briefing yesterday where he also pointed out that a “win-win” approach to ending the violence in Sabah is for the followers of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to lay down their arms and leave the territory peacefully.
“So what win-win solution they have, it’s all in their hands. We have always batted for a peaceful resolution to this conflict. So I have no idea what they have in mind. I think the burden is on them. We’ve always said that, ‘lay down your arms and let’s talk’. But this has gone beyond that: the violence, blood has been spilled; and so, it’s really up to Mr. Jamalul Kiram,” Lacierda said.
He also clarified that Cabinet Secretary Jose Rene Almendras was talking about the possibility of the government addressing the Sabah issue using the same legal tack being used in resolving the Panatag Shoal dispute with China.
“Secretary Almendras said the President has tasked Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa Jr., Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario and Justice Secretary Leila de Lima to study the matter. If the group finds basis to file a claim, the Philippines will then elevate the matter to the international courts where, as in the Bajo de Masinloc case, the government will be retaining private lawyers to handle the claim, if necessary,” Lacierda said.
The STAR’s interview with Almendras and acting Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Gov. Mujiv Hataman was done on March 6 at The STAR office in Port Area in Manila and not in Corregidor Island on Monday. Aquino and some Cabinet officials were in Corregidor last Monday during the commemoration of the 45th anniversary of the Jabidah massacre.
In his discussion with The STAR editors and reporters, Almendras said there was no way the Aquino administration could be accused of giving up the Sabah claim because they were spending so much “getting lawyers to follow the legal processes.”
In the same interview, Almendras said De Lima had told the media that “we are preparing a legal study on how to revive” the Sabah claim by going to the International Court of Justice.
But Lacierda said this did not mean lawyers had been hired since a study was still being made.
“And, based on what Secretary Almendras told me, if there is a basis for the claim and the recommendation is to pursue the claim, then obviously – as in the case of the Panatag Shoal, as in the case of China – we will elevate it before international courts; and, in that instance, we will be hiring lawyers, private lawyers, to handle the case,” Lacierda said.
Almendras and Hataman said there was no consulate or any official presence in Sabah until this time and that should dispel impression that the government had given up its claim. “The fight is not yet over,” Hataman said.
Lay down arms
On reports that the sultanate had lifted its ceasefire declaration and that its followers in Sabah would fight back if attacked by Malaysian forces, Lacierda said “obviously, they have been decimated so what’s the effect of the lifting of the ceasefire?”
“You’ve been reporting everyday that there are some casualties and, some days, there are none. So, obviously, it didn’t matter to the Malaysians whether the ceasefire was lifted or not,” he said, addressing the sultanate.
“Again, our call here is for a peaceful resolution and, apparently, we are onboard, other countries are onboard, but the sultanate is not onboard in this matter,” Lacierda said.
He decried Kiram’s rejection of “disengagement” as supposedly agreed upon between his brother Esmail and Interior Secretary Manuel Roxas II.
“We have done and we continue to do… What’s the price of adventurism? Filipinos in Sabah…We are also taking care of their people from Sabah coming home and we’re providing assistance to all these things. We continue to do our efforts,” he said.
Lacierda also said they were verifying reports that Kirams’ supporters were tortured by authorities as claimed by Sultan Fuad Kiram I.
Fuad, who is claiming to be the legitimate ruler of the Sultanate of Sulu and Sabah, said that many Tausugs who had fled Sabah had marks of torture.
“We are verifying those reports in media. Number one, we need to verify those reports first. DSWD (Department of Social Welfare and Development) is on the ground and they are documenting. We have not received any reports yet on that. So we’ll validate,” Lacierda said.
Lacierda said that while embassy officials were able to visit some of the evacuation areas in Sabah “we only follow the reports also in Sabah that the Malaysian authorities provide us.”
“It seems that there’s no fighting as… there’s no bombing incident anymore. I am not clear with what the Malaysians are doing right now. But it seems like there has been no large-scale fighting in Sabah and our Philippine embassy team has been able to visit some of the Filipinos there in Lahad Datu, in Felda Sabahat,” Lacierda said.
He also said they had no new information on Kiram’s brother Agbimuddin, who was leading the sultan’s armed followers in Sabah. “Malaysian authorities have not been able to locate him yet,” Lacierda said.
“As far as we are concerned, our concern right now – which wasn’t anticipated by the Kiram family – is the status of those Filipinos who are now coming home because of what happened in Lahad Datu. So we’re taking care of that now. We’re ensuring and providing assistance to those people who have left Sabah,” he said.
Lacierda said Malaysian authorities have not responded yet to Manila’s request for consular access or legal assistance to the sultan’s followers in custody.
“Malaysian authorities are saying there are security concerns. So we hope that those security concerns will be resolved so that we will have access to the followers of Kiram under their custody,” he said.
But consular services including issuance of passports and processing of travel documents have been made available to thousands of displaced Filipinos in Sabah wishing to return to the Philippines.
Two officials from the embassy, including Vice Consul Francis Herrera, left Kuala Lumpur on Monday, to join the embassy’s humanitarian/consular team in Lahad Datu.
There are two embassy humanitarian/consular teams attending to the needs of Filipinos in Sabah – one in Lahad Datu and the other in Tawau.
Labor Attaché Alicia Santos said human resource managers of 17 companies have informed the embassy that their Filipino workers are safe.
“The humanitarian/consular teams are operating on a mobile basis, going to areas where their services are most needed. They are assisted by the embassy’s network of Filipino community leaders in reaching out to our nationals,” said Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya.
The Philippines has no permanent consular presence in Sabah.
Earlier, upon the request of the embassy, the Department of Education and the Commission on Filipinos Overseas conducted a joint “needs-assessment mission” in Sabah to determine how best to provide alternative education to children of undocumented Filipino migrants who have limited access to public schools.
For the same endeavor, the embassy partnered with the Borneo Child Aid Society which runs some 120 Humana Child Aid alternative learning centers in Sabah’s vast plantation estates, as well as with the Indonesian Children Education Awareness Foundation and the Society for the Education of Needy Children in admitting more Filipino children in their schools.
“We are most grateful to the Filipino community leaders for being our pro-active partner in uplifting the welfare of the Filipino community in Sabah,” Malaya said.
Appeal for unity
While the government continues to fend off criticism of its handling of the crisis, Sen. Francis Escudero is appealing to politicians and the public in general to support the President’s Sabah initiatives.
“Let the president decide on the Sabah issue. Let’s respect and support the President because he’s carrying a heavy burden,” Escudero said in Filipino in a press briefing in Malolos City.
He explained that in dealing with Sabah crisis, it is important that the country speaks in one voice. “Let’s not expose our dirty laundry in public. Let the President do the talking and let’s support him – right or wrong. Payback time should come later,” he said.
The re-electionist senator also asked candidates in the coming polls to refrain from taking advantage of the issue.
“Let’s not dip our fingers into it. National interest is the issue here, not improving the image of politicians,” he said.
He also scoffed at proposals that the country send an armed group to rescue the sultanate’s remaining followers in Lahad Datu. He said Malaysia is unlikely to allow a foreign armed group to intrude into its territory.
Escudero said Malacañang had exercised the same restraint in dealing with the Chinese on the Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal issue.
“Had we sent Navy ships to Scarborough, the Chinese would have made the same move or even more,” he said.
In Tagum City in Davao del Sur, United Nationalist Alliance senatorial candidate Mitos Magsaysay said President Aquino must personally appeal to the Prime Minister of Malaysia to stop the attacks in Sabah.
Magsaysay also expressed relief that the President had finally acknowledged the legitimacy of the Philippines’ Sabah claim.
“Why didn’t he talk to the Malaysian prime minister? Everytime there is death, it will get worse, the situation will get worse. He should appeal because it will not die down,” Magsaysay told reporters. With Pia Lee-Brago, Jose Rodel Clapano, Dino Balabo