President Aquino’s appeal to the Sultan of Sulu to order his followers who had crossed over to Sabah to press the sultanate’s ancestral claim to the Malaysian state to return home was an ultimatum to end the standoff with Malaysia.
The President could not have been more emphatic in making the sultanate toe the longstanding policy of not reviving the dormant claim to Sabah when he warned the Sultan in a press conference on radio-TV on Tuesday: “The right thing to do now is order your followers to return home as soon as possible. The choices and consequences are yours. If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way.”
He was referring to a group of armed followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III who landed in Sabah from Tawi-Tawi two weeks ago in an action to occupy Sabah, which they claim as their ancestral land. The armed men holed up in Lahad Datu in Sabah and were surrounded by Malaysian security forces who are prepared to expel the Filipinos by force.
Mincing no words, the President left no doubt of his determination to break the standoff between the Sultan’s men and the Malaysian forces.
“The point of no return has not been reached yet, but we are approaching that time fast,” the President said in a prepared statement at the end of the extended deadline set by Malaysia for the Sultan’s men to leave and return home. Malaysian authorities had thrice extended the deadline for the Filipinos to leave before they would be expelled.
“May I remind you as well as a citizen of the republic, you are bound by the Constitution of the republic and its laws,” the President said in reading the riot act to the Sultan. Among the possible violations of the Constitution, he said, concerned Article 22, Section 2, which provides that “the Philippines renounces war as an instrument of national policy.” He further cited the enabling law for this provision—Article 118 of the Revised Penal Code, which punishes those who “provoke or give occasion for war … or expose Filipino citizens to reprisals on their persons and property.” Having been warned of the futility of holing up the village of Tanduao in Lahad Datu town, and of the Philippine government’s decision not to intervene in its expulsion, the so-called Royal Armed Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo has no alternative but to leave.
High officials of the Philippines and Malaysia have been engaged in intense backroom talks to avert a showdown, which both governments fear may scuttle the Aquino administration’s high-priority project of establishing the Bangsamoro as an Islamic substate in Mindanao, within the constitutional framework of the predominantly Christian majority of the republic. It was not clear yesterday whether the Sultan would withdraw his men from Sabah, and government emissaries have been negotiating with the sultanate’s heirs for an amicable exit. The Philippine Navy has sent ships to the approaches of Sabah to evacuate the armed men and their families and bring them home.
Only a week ago in Iloilo, the President signaled his disapproval of the occupation action of the sultanate’s armed followers.
“If you [use] guns, of course the other side will have only one possible response to [our] challenge,” Mr. Aquino told reporters. “That cannot be the solution.” He said he expected that Malaysia would not give Sabah away without a fight.
The emphatic ultimatum issued by the President to the Sultan appears to have averted a head-on collision with Malaysia, which has been facilitating peace talks that led to the Bangsamoro initiative. But it has come at the expense of sending back to a comatose state the Philippine claim to Sabah. The President has sent the signal that the government is not going to step in to back the sultanate in its bid to claim Sabah. He has said that he was prepared to talk with the heirs of the sultanate after their men withdraw from Sabah.
According to senior sultanate officers, the decision to send men to occupy Sabah was made because the sultanate had been feeling left out from the talks on the establishment of the Bangsamoro entity.
The Aquino administration announced that the President has ordered the Department of Justice, the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Office of the President to look into the sultanate’s claim to Sabah. According to Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, the government will know what action to take after the “comprehensive legal study of the ownership of Sabah.” She said: “What the President wants is to look at the merit or validity of the Sabah claim before he makes any decision, or before this government makes any policy direction with respect to that issue.”
The message seems to be that the government is not rocking the boat and is going back to square one—when President Diosdado Macapagal initiated filing a claim to Sabah, when it was part of British North Borneo.
De Lima took refuge in the excuse for nonaction that no administration after that of the late President Ferdinand Marcos had taken a “definitive” stand on the Sabah issue. She was apparently referring to the so-called “Jabidah massacre” of 1968, when Marcos organized a secret project to train Moro youths on Corregidor Island to infiltrate Sabah in order to stir up secessionist unrest there. The recruits revolted and tried to escape Corregidor, and were massacred. Only one recruit survived. He revealed the plot, causing it to collapse and creating a major diplomatic conflict between the Philippines and Malaysia. The massacre also heightened the Moro insurgency in Mindanao, which has lasted many generations.