Why the Sabah claim should be pursued | Inquirer Opinion
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Why the Sabah claim should be pursued

12:19 AM July 04, 2016

The announcement by President Rodrigo Duterte, days before he assumed the presidency, that he would pursue the Sabah claim, which has been relegated to the back burner during the previous two administrations, stirred a hornet’s nest not just locally but internationally as well.

As expected the Malaysian government reacted strongly to Mr. Duterte’s announcement.

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In a report carried by the Tokyo-based The Diplomat, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak was quoted as saying during his keynote address before the Asia-Pacific Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur last June: “Duterte should instead use his time more productively to help resolve the Moro insurgency than press the Philippines’ claim to Sabah. That certainly would be more productive than reigniting the Sabah claim issue.”

Najib also urged the Duterte administration to implement instead the 2014 peace deal the Philippine government had forged with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a pact that Kuala Lumpur helped broker.

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Malaysia’s foreign ministry also issued a statement reiterating the country’s position that it did not recognize any claim to Sabah by any party, while Sabah’s Chief Minister Musa Aman dismissed the claim as “irrelevant.”

Mr. Duterte should not be cowed by the warning from Kuala Lumpur and should pursue the Sabah claim but, as he said, through peaceful means.

The Sultanate of Sulu claims, based on historical facts, that Sabah belongs to them and was only leased to Malaysia’s British North Borneo Co. in 1878. It claims that the sultan of Sulu and his heirs have proprietary rights over Sabah which was given to them by the then sultan of Brunei for the help of Tausug warriors in quelling an uprising in Brunei in the 1600s.

“The proprietary claim of the heirs of the sultan of Sulu and the people of the islands west of the Philippines cannot be ignored and abandoned by their own government,” Mr. Duterte declared in a statement, which is now included in a soon-to-be published book, “The Heart and Mind of Rody Duterte,” authored by Manny Piñol, the agriculture secretary. Piñol was an ace reporter of the state-owned Philippines News Agency before he entered politics.

Piñol said Mr. Duterte’s position on the Sabah claim indicates his strong and ardent adherence to social justice and the protection of the Filipinos’ rights over what they claim as theirs.

And while it pursues the Sabah claim, the Duterte administration should also look into the reason Malaysia acted as a facilitator in the peace negotiations between the Aquino administration and the MILF when it is very clear that it is not a neutral country.

There is a longstanding belief, even among officials in the high echelons of the government, that Kuala Lumpur is the chief bankroller of MILF operations in Mindanao. Although there is no clear evidence to prove this charge, the persistent question up to now that begs an answer is: “How can the MILF continue paying the salaries of its armed combatants, not to mention procuring modern arms, if it has no foreign funding?”

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At least in the case of the New People’s Army, it has been collecting “revolutionary taxes” which are its main source of income, although it could be getting some funding from foreign foundations supportive of the communist movement in the country.

In the case of the MILF, it does not have a clear  source of funds. And just to maintain its sprawling complex at Camp Darapanan in Sultan Kudarat, which is complete with modern amenities, would need a substantial budget.

So, if it is true that Malaysia is bankrolling the operations of the MILF, how can it be an impartial mediator in resolving the decades-old conflict in southern Philippines? And why is it that the peace talks between the government and the MILF have to be held in Kuala Lumpur when the delegates of both sides are all Filipinos who can meet inside the Philippines? Is the interference of Kuala Lumpur the reason the peace accord with the MILF is heavily favorable to the secessionist group?

Malaysia has agreed to facilitate the peace process not for altruistic reasons but because it wants the Sabah claim to be shelved or totally abandoned by the Manila government. This was confirmed by a report published in the Manila Times on May 21, 2015, which quoted an official of the Sultanate of Sulu as saying that the MILF would drop the sultanate’s Sabah claim in exchange for Malaysia’s support for the creation of a Bangsamoro government.

Abraham Idjirani, spokesperson for the Sultanate of Sulu, was quoted as saying that once the Bangsamoro sovereign state is in place, its leaders would abandon the Sabah claim because “they owe Malaysia a debt of gratitude.”

It is now very obvious that Malaysia’s role in the peace process is linked to the Sabah claim and how to scuttle it permanently. It is in this context that the administration of President Duterte should vigorously pursue the Sabah claim.

Alito L. Malinao is a former diplomatic reporter and news editor of the Manila Standard. Now teaching journalism subjects at the Pamantasan ng Lungsod ng Maynila, Malinao is the author of the book, “Journalism for Filipinos.”

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