PH has ‘solid legal foundation’ to Sabah

A veteran Filipino diplomat has urged the Philippine government to “revisit” its claim to Sabah which has “solid legal foundation” and correct its past mistakes by not playing into Malaysia’s hands anymore.

This develops as Manila has asked Kuala Lumpur for another extension—with no definite time but for a few days—to convince the followers of a Filipino sultan in southern Philippines who are holed up in Sabah to leave peacefully.

“The Sabah standoff should rouse the Philippine Rip van Winkle attitude towards our claim to the area,” Lauro Baja, formerly the Philippine permanent representative to the United Nations, said. “It provides the country with a unique but sensitive opportunity to revisit our claim.”

Media reports on Wednesday night said that Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario has asked Malaysia to extend for an indefinite number of days its deadline for the Filipinos holing up in Sabah’s Tanduao village in Lahad Datu town to leave or face arrest and deportation.

Writing for Vera Files’ news site on Wednesday night, Baja said the Philippines might be able to correct some missteps in the past through creative imagination and skillful diplomacy.

He said these missteps included moves by former president Ferdinand Marcos in the 1960s of secretly training Moro from southern Philippines to reclaim Sabah and the Philippines accepting a UN-sanctioned referendum that created the Federation of Malaysia.

The covert training held on the Philippine island of Corregidor resulted to an alleged massacre of young Moro recruits by their military handlers after they tried to escape. The referendum creating the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, on the other hand, was eventually accepted by the Philippines where North Borneo became a state of Malaysia known as Sabah. A UN Commission had found that popular opinion was in favour of North Borneo becoming a Malaysian state.

Baja said that President Benigno Aquino III must convene the National Security Council to consider pursuing the country’s claim to Sabah on behalf of the Sultanate of Sulu, as the ongoing standoff has far reaching consequences.

“As days pass, the confluence of events makes it imperative that the Philippines now define its policy on Sabah,” he stressed. “To continue putting the claim in the backburner is not a policy. This is an illusion, a mirage.”

Failure to pursue would mean wasting previous efforts made by the Philippines before the UN and other international forums since the 1960s, he said. It could also mean violating the Philippine Constitution and other rules, as well as a Supreme Court decision declaring that the Philippines has dominion over Sabah.

“The solid legal foundation of our claim still exists,” Baja stressed.

He warned the Aquino administration against going along with Malaysia on Sabah, as Kuala Lumpur is applying ‘effectivités’, or the effectiveness principle, in dealing with the standoff crisis. Effectivités is defined in diplomacy as the conduct of the administrative authorities as proof of the effective exercise of territorial jurisdiction in the region during the colonial period.

Baja said it is understandable how Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III feels as he has claimed that the present administration, like its predecessors, seemed not interested in pursuing the Sabah claim at the diplomatic level.

He noted that in the transfer of sovereignty document signed by the Philippine government and the sultan of Sulu, it was provided that if the former failed in pursuing the Sabah claim the agreement shall be deemed voided.

The sultan’s followers, led by his brother, Sulu Crown Prince Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, travelled to Sabah from the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, home to Muslim minority, to stake their claim to the disputed territory.

Malaysia pays a token annual rental fee to the Sultanate of Sulu for Sabah, prompting Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin to say earlier that the country’s claim to Sabah has legal basis.

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