ILOILO CITY—The drastic action being pursued by the sultanate of Sulu to press its claim to the eastern Malaysian state of Sabah is not the best way to resolve the ownership dispute, President Aquino warned on Thursday.
“If you [use] guns, of course, the other side will have only one possible response to [your] challenge,” Aquino said, breaking his silence on the standoff between Malaysian security forces and a group of armed followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III in Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town in Sabah.
“[T]hat cannot be the solution,” the President told reporters in an interview here.
The President inadvertently confirmed a report published by the Inquirer on Thursday that his administration was silently working through emissaries to convince Jamalul to recall his followers from Sabah so that the standoff could be resolved peacefully.
“[W]e have been dealing with this. We have been talking to parties concerned, including the family of the sultan, to ensure that there will be a peaceful resolution to this,” Aquino said.
But he added that the matter is not entirely in the government’s hands.
“There has to be cooperation among all entities to achieve, first, a resolution of the current crisis and, later on, what could be a long-term solution to this dispute,” Aquino said.
The standoff between Malaysian police, military and naval forces and the Sulu sultan’s followers is now in its second week.
Aquino said he expected that Malaysia would not give away Sabah without a fight.
He disclosed that he had long tasked a legal team to study the basis of the Philippines’ claim to Sabah.
“Any country [that] has territory will be naught to give up sovereignty. And Malaysia has not been—I think forever—they have been very, very friendly to us. And they have been very, very supportive to us. And we have to, as a brother nation in (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), also respond,” he said.
Malaysia is brokering the peace talks between the Aquino administration and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
The two sides signed a preliminary peace agreement last October, and they are thrashing out a final peace accord that they hope to conclude this year.
According to Interior Secretary Mar Roxas, the government has asked Esmail Kiram II, a brother of Jamalul, to talk to the sultan and convince him to recall the armed group led by their brother Agbimuddin Kiram from Sabah.
Roxas said a military general, a police general and a provincial official had been communicating with Esmail to ask him to help end the crisis in Sabah.
He said other government emissaries were talking to Jamalul, who is undergoing dialysis treatment in a Manila hospital.
Esmail was traveling to Manila from Zamboanga City on Thursday to meet with Jamalul, Roxas said.
The idea, he said, is for Esmail to travel to Sabah to talk to Agbimuddin about ending the standoff and going home to Sulu.
“Our officials have communicated with Esmail to consult with Sultan Jamalul to obtain his guidance because the government has asked Esmail, in view of the sultan’s illness or need for dialysis, to go to Sabah to talk to his brother prince,” Roxas said on the phone.
Through Esmail, he said, the government is sending a message to Agbimuddin, “Come home peaceably.”
“The message of the government is that nothing will be attained through force and aggression,” Roxas said.
“We must try to find a way to resolve the standoff and pursue their claim in other [forums],” he added.
The Malaysian authorities have agreed to give Agbimuddin and his group time to talk to a “prominent figure” before they leave Tanduao to be deported to the Philippines.
The authorities have given them until Friday to decide whether to leave on their own or be rounded up and deported.
Esmail could be the “prominent figure” Agbimuddin’s group is waiting for.
“The best person to talk with Agbimuddin is his brother and fellow claimants,” Roxas said.
Asked about the Philippines’ claim to Sabah, Aquino said he himself was confused about the historical antecedents that led to the standoff.
He was referring to an agreement that the Sulu sultanate signed in January 1878 to lease Sabah to the British North Borneo Co. for 5,300 Malaysian ringgit a year.
The Kirams claim that the lease continues despite the formation of the Malaysian federation in 1963 and cite that, in fact, they continue to receive the paltry sum through the Malaysian Embassy in Manila.
Aquino said Cabinet officials concerned were studying and compiling “all the data that we have,” including the 1878 document
Lost in translation?
That document has gone through “massive amendments” and been translated into English, French and Tausug, Aquino said.
“There is a school of thought that says the translations are not faithful translations. There were clarifications that even made the agreements confusing. So, if you ask, definitively, what’s the basis of our claim … [and] what are the documents that are existing [to support the claim], the [story becomes] confusing,” Aquino said.
Whether to keep the claim dormant or revive it is “part of the [Sabah] question,” he said.
Aquino raised several points related to the claim.
“If we say that we agree that the sultan of Sulu owns Sabah, does that also mean that they own Sulu? If we (sultanate) own Sulu, can we (the sultanate) suddenly say we are separate from the Philippines?” he said.
“Then, if they (sultanate) surrendered their sovereignty to the Americans when we were a colony, [then] the Philippine government, currently as a successor to that government, [now] has the right to Sulu,” Aquino said.
Why the Germans?
“So again, if you start from the source documents written in several languages, I think, there was a time that the British and the Germans had an agreement. This is not clear to me—how did the Germans come to be included?” Aquino said, referring to the 1903 amendments to the 1878 agreement.
“Everybody was signing a document in his native language. And you wonder how many of them understood what was written in the other copy. Now, I am not an expert. I have tasked the experts to study all of this and to find out precisely where we stand,” Aquino said.
A Cabinet legal team is doing the study, he said.
The team is headed by Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa and presidential legal counsel Alfredo Benjamin Caguioa.