The Philippines’ claim to Sabah came under the national spotlight when 200 or so members of the Royal Army of the Sultanate of Sulu, at present headed by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, occupied a portion of their ancestral land, declaring their intention to claim back Sabah. On March 2, 2013, the situation turned violent when Malaysian police and military forces attacked the sultan’s army after the latter refused to heed the call, initially, to leave the area and, later, to surrender. The skirmish resulted in deaths and injuries, mostly on the side of the Royal Army, and the massive dislocation of civilian-residents, mostly Filipinos. The dislocation of Filipinos in Sabah is one of the continuing consequences of the armed confrontation between the sultan’s followers and Malaysian forces. The volatile situation is made more ticklish because it came after the Philippine government successfully forged a Framework Agreement on the Bangsamoro with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, with Malaysia as mediator in and convenor of the peace talks.
Nonetheless, President Aquino displayed statesmanship in dealing with the situation by not taking drastic and hasty actions that would have jeopardized its relations with Malaysia. He had to do, as he did, a balancing act: between strengthening our relations with Malaysia and promoting the interests of the sultan and his followers. Needless to say, in the weighing scale, national interest and the welfare and security of the greater number of Filipinos are the paramount consideration.
In the conduct of foreign relations, which is the exclusive domain of the executive department, the President is generally guided by international law, the provisions of the United Nations charter, Asean charter and treaty stipulations. This is why it is understandable for President Aquino if it seems that he tilts the balance in favor of Malaysia for now. But from his public statements I understand, as many others do, that the Philippine government is not abandoning the Sabah claim. He only wants that the sultan and his followers to take the nonviolent and peaceful path.
Similarly, it is the sentiments of peace-loving Filipinos to settle this controversy through diplomatic channels. We thus appeal to the Philippine government and Sultan Jamalul to sit down, agree on a specific approach, collaborate and stay united in the pursuit of our Sabah claim. And subject to constitutional and lawful arrangements that both parties may agree on, the Sultanate of Sulu should let the Philippine government (as sovereign state with a locus standi) to pursue and air this Sabah claim before the International Court of Justice after exhausting the extrajudicial approaches enshrined in the United Nations and Asean charters, such as mediation, conciliation and arbitration.
—SAMROLLAH M. DEKIRE,
member, Integrated Bar of the Philippines
and of the Philippine Sharia Bar,