Pundits: Philippines trying to widen rift between Putrajaya and Sabah by claiming ownership

Kenneth Tee And Julia Chan
Participants get ready for 2018 Malaysia Day Celebrations at Padang Merdeka in Kota Kinabalu September 16, 2018. — Picture by Shafwan Zaidon

KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 12 — A Philippines official’s remark claiming that Sabah belongs to the republic could be a calculated move to “exploit” the East Malaysian state’s strained relationship with Putrajaya, several international affairs observers have suggested.

Noting that the recent claim by the island republic as an effective recurring strategy used by Philippines politicians to gain political mileage, they, however, warned that it was imperative Putrajaya remained on its toes over possible armed incursion from parties seeking to lay claim to the state and to prevent a repeat of the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff.

Speaking to Malay Mail, Universiti Teknologi Malaysia geostrategist Azmi Hassan suggested a new strategy is being employed by Malacañang, seemingly to pit state and federal governments against each other in light of recent political developments.

“My assumption is that when there is a bad relationship between the state and federal governments, Manila hopes that the issue of Sabah remaining in Malaysia will ignite again since it has been pursued by certain quarters in Sabah to Manila’s advantage.

“To be more specific, the strained relationship between Sabah and KL via MA63 is being exploited by Manila to serve its purpose. 

“It’s not healthy when local issues such as MA63 are used by a foreign entity since it will complicate discussions between the two parties of Sabah and Putrajaya,” he said, using the acronym of the Malaysia Agreement 1963.

Azmi also agreed when asked if it is possible that the republic was hoping for Sabahans to eventually get “fed up”, before taking advantage of the situation and staking a claim on the state.

On September 4, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr repeated the Philippines’ claim over Sabah, after its Lanao del Norte representative Khalid Dimaporo asked if the republic’s Department of Foreign Affairs has allocated any funds for Sabah.

In response, Wisma Putra stressed that Malaysia does not recognise and will never entertain any claims by any party on Sabah.

Pointing out that the sensitivity of the Sabah claim used to satisfy Filipinos was usually confined there, Azmi, however, said Manila’s latest attempt could be implicitly seen as a foreign interference in a domestic matter. 

Earlier this month, it was reported that Sabahans remain unconvinced of Putrajaya’s sincerity in reviewing MA63, with concerns that the terms of the review are a one-sided affair.

Other long-standing issues that continue to rankle include the unequal development between East Malaysia and the peninsula, higher oil royalty payments, a 40 per cent return on income generated by the state and the complex illegal immigrant situation.

A short-lived anti-Malaya sentiment also resurfaced in 2015 with a group of secessionists claiming Sabahans were no longer interested in being a part of the Malaysian federation. As a result, local political parties have become more vocal in fighting for the restoration of their rights from the central government.

Senior fellow at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia Bunn Nagara disagreed with Azmi’s claim of a new strategy being used by Manila, however, adding that Manila will never officially give up its claim of Sabah even though it has no legal and factual basis.

“It is unnecessarily alarmist as there’s no evidence of any strategy from them.

“Locsin was only responding to a point raised by others. He has neither said nor done anything new,” he said.

He said the issue persisted for so many years because it is treated as a nationalist and emotional issue in the Philippines, with it frequently linked to voters’ sentiment.

However, he warned Putrajaya to beware of possible attacks in the future similar to the 2013 Lahad Datu standoff because of the issue’s volatile nature among the general Filipino populace.

“When issues become emotional people forget about facts. As part of the claim is concerned, every Filipino group and individual I have met, regardless of their differences in politics, insist that Sabah is part of the Philippines,” he said when contacted. 

“It is an obvious disregard for the facts of history and legal reality. Functionally and administratively, Sabah has been part of Malaysia for so many years.

“However, there are some people in the Philippines who, through ignorance or deliberate mischief, may try to stir up the issue by assuming Sabah is part of the Philippines,” he added.

He said it could be safely assumed that the Philippines has found itseld to be weak on the legal side as current Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has not pursued his 2016 Sabah claim promise since then.

“It’s Duterte as president who overrules any minister,” he said.

Bunn then explained the context of the claim — originating historically from the now abolished Sulu Sultanate and not from the Republic of the Philippines — as being weak, not credible or non-existent.

Historically speaking the Sulu Sultanate bordered the western peninsula of Mindanao and also covered the area on the north-eastern side of Borneo, now Sabah.

Successive presidents since the era of Diosdado Macapagal in the 1960s have pressed the Sultanate’s case, but failed to follow through including an attempt by the late president Ferdinand Marcos to train and equip a secret Muslim militia to take Sabah by force in 1967.

In February 2013, about 200 armed Sulu men led by self-appointed Sultan Jamalul Kiram III launched an armed assault when some 200 armed men laid siege to Lahad Datu, Sabah, leading to firefights with Malaysia’s security forces, and killing some 100 people.

Bunn reiterated that a referendum was also held by the Cobbold Commission in 1962 on the formation of the Federation of Malaysia, with the people of Sabah and Sarawak collectively agreeing to be part of the federation.

For Malacañang, acceptance of Sabah as part of Malaysia was conditional upon a United Nations-approved referendum determining the wishes of the Sabah people. 

“Although the referendum was carried out, the Philippines refused to accept the outcome and so until today, we have this problem,” he said.

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