The safety of about 200 Filipinos, most of them armed and who are in a standoff with Malaysian authorities in Sabah, is the Philippines’ primary concern, the presidential palace in Manila yesterday said.
This comes after reports that the ruling administration was seemed reluctant to meddle in the issue, which has become one of Sabah’s biggest security crises in recent memory.
Abigail Valte, deputy presidential spokesperson, said the ruling administration, through the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur, is working for a peaceful resolution to the crisis.
“We don’t want to engage in speculation about what these people are,” she added, referring to the Filipinos, whose media reports on their number vary from 100 to 2,000. “[T]he primary concern is their safety and how to resolve the incident peacefully.”
Valte stressed that Malaysian Foreign Minister Dato’ Sri Anifah bin Haji Aman had assured the Department of Foreign Affairs, in Manila, of the safety of the Filipinos as well as of addressing their concerns.
“The Secretary of Foreign Affairs [Albert del Rosario] said we have been assured the right of our people will be respected,” she said.
Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, the crown prince of the southern Philippine autonomous island-province of Sulu, gathered his men on February 11 and left for Sabah through Tawi-Tawi, a Philippine province in southern Mindanao, in speedboats.
After less than an hour, they landed in the village of Tunduao, in Sabah’s Lahad Datu town, where they said they came peacefully to push for the claim over Sabah by the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
They cited the failure of Philippine President Benigno Aquino III to consider the Sabah claim when his administration signed a Framework Agreement, which calls for the establishment of the Bangsamoro in Mindanao, with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) late last year.
Rajah Mudah has said that the Sabah claim was supposed to be an “integral and essential” part of any peace accord with any armed group on Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest island that’s predominantly Christian and a homeland of Muslims minority.
He added that he and his men went to Sabah to lay their claim on their own, owing to the reluctance of the ruling administration and the previous administrations in dealing the issue with their Malaysian counterparts.
Valte said the Philippine government is still gathering information on why and how Rajah Mudah and his men got into Sabah, and their real motive behind this.
Malaysian officials have expressed their suspicion that these Filipinos are members of a Muslim rebel group. Philippine authorities, on the other hand, said the group consists of unarmed and disgruntled Filipinos from Mindanao.
Earlier, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), the former Muslim secessionist group where MILF had spun off, said the government’s peace agreement with the MILF would not work, as this would only abrogate the already existing Philippine government-MNLF accord.
Signed in 1996, the government-MNLF peace agreement calls for the MNLF, led by its founder Nur Misuari, to co-operate in addressing peace and order problems in the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM), in order to address poverty and underdevelopment in the region.
ARMM was created in 1989 by then-President Ferdinand Marcos through Republic Act 6734, in a bid to quell the hostilities between the MNLF rebels and government forces that had escalated since the 1970s.
The government-MILF peace accord, meanwhile, provides the establishment of the Bangsamoro, which will replace ARMM, as a bigger and wider autonomous region for the Muslims in Mindanao. The accord also ends the decades of hostilities between government forces and the 120,000-strong Moro rebels, following 15 years of negotiations mostly brokered by Malaysia.
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