Mar 6, 2013

Palace: Safe passage iffy

Malaysia has final say; Kiram insists on claim

Malacañang on Sunday admitted that there is no guarantee that the brother of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III and his followers in Sabah will be given safe passage back to the Philippines if they surrender to Malaysian authorities.


Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte made the admission after repeated calls and warnings from the Palace to the Kirams that surrender was their only option.

“That is up to the Malaysian authorities. It is not a secret that the Malaysians have control of the situation in Sabah,” Valte said when asked if the Aquino administration was given any guarantee that Kiram’s brother, Agbimuddin, and his 223 remaining followers will not be arrested by Malaysian troops once they heed the surrender calls.

Ignoring these calls, the sultan warned of more bloodshed if the Philippine government continued to ignore the sultanate’s claim over Sabah, which it sought to dramatize three weeks ago by sending an armed contingent led by his brother to the island in Malaysia’s north Borneo region.

The sultan said every Tausug and Filipino Muslim would lay down his life in the continuing struggle to reclaim Sabah.

“I warned them. There are many Tausug Muslims who are ready to die. There will be no Muslims left here in the Philippines,” Kiram said from his residence in Maharlika Village in Taguig City. “They will all fight to the death, including those in the police and the military. This is not a joke. Malaking gulo ito.”

A spokesman for the sultanate said they had not been in touch with Agbimuddin since Saturday and could not confirm reports of new firefights in Sabah.

A tense, three-week standoff in Sabah was broken by a bloody firefight on Friday where 12 of Kiram’s followers and two Malaysian security forces were killed.

Agbimuddin claimed the casualties incuded a 28-year-old mother of three and her husband.

Valte said the government has done all it could to negotiate with the sultan, including sending National Security Adviser Cesar Garcia and presidential political adviser Ronald Llamas to discuss a peaceful resolution to the standoff.

Valte noted that the Kirams’ “proprietary claim” on Sabah must not lead to the further shedding of blood.

The Palace official, however, took exception to criticisms that President Benigno Aquino III gave priority to campaigning for Team Pnoy senatorial candidates in Pampanga on Friday, even as initial reports on the firefight were arriving.

She denied a claim by United Nationalist Alliance senatorial candidate Milagros Magsaysay that he chose to be an endorser for Team Pnoy before attending to his job as a President.

“The President had his mind on what was happening in Sabah while he was in Pampanga. He was still monitoring the situation. He was getting the reports,” she said.

“(But) while he was there, he did not want to disappoint also the people who were there,” Valte added.

Mr. Aquino, in his speech, apologized to the audience that he would have to cut his visit short because of the Sabah crisis, but he assured them that he did not go to Pampanga to discuss the firefight

in the island state.

He then proceeded to deliver a 40-minute speech where he criticized his predecessor, detained Pampanga Rep. Gloria Arroyo. He also took the time to campaign not only for Team PNoy senatorial candidates but for Liberal Party local bets as well.

Friday’s gunbattle occurred about an hour before a scheduled meeting between Sulu Sultanate spokesman Abraham Idjirani and Malaysian Ambassador to Manila Mohammad Zamri Mohammad Kassim.

Idjirani said they would appeal to the international community, including the United Nations or the Organization of Islamic Cooperation — to investigate the incident.

The Sulu sultan earlier warned that if the Sabah incident is not handled well, it could “awaken a (sleeping) giant” and that the conflict could spread “all the way to Kota Kinabalu.”

Mr. Aquino has already warned Kiram that he and his followers, including their possible collaborators, will face “the full force of the law” if they refuse to leave Sabah as he ordered an investigation into possible violations of the law by the group.

Mr. Aquino warned Kiram that his group was now “fast approaching that point of no return.”

“The choices and consequences are yours. If you choose not to cooperate, the full force of the laws of the state will be used to achieve justice for all who have been put in harm’s way,” the President said.

The President admitted that Kiram’s letter in 2010 seeking consultations on the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front was “lost in the bureaucratic maze.”

But Mr. Aquino said this did not justify an armed incursion.

Justice Secretary Leila de Lima, who was ordered to study the country’s claim over Sabah, said the government’s diplomatic relations with Malaysia were vital to resolving its territorial claim.

“This is not just a purely legal matter. We have to consider all aspects – including foreign policies of the government,” she said in an interview.

She described the Sabah claim as “complicated.”

De Lima also pointed out that crucial part of the study involves the veracity of Sultan Kiram’s claims.

The sultan, who rules the ethnic Tausug population of about 1.5 million in the Sulu archipelago composed of the provinces of Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, said he has grown tired of Malacanang’s indifference to their cause.

“I’ve made so many proposals for a peaceful resolution. I’ve always been saying my door is open. They were saying they want to solve the problem but the problem is they would not talk to me,” Kiram said.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has warned the Kiram group holed up in Lahad Datu that they will face the consequences if they refuse to surrender. President Aquino has issued similar warnings.

“We are Filipinos but our government is siding with the Malaysians,” Kiram said.

Kiram’s daughter, Princess Jacel, said they had been receiving a flood of support and encouragement from other Muslim sultanates over the Sabah issue, and warned of a possible spillover of the violence.

“We don’t want this to get worse. We are doing the best we can to resolve this issue peacefully,” she said, but added that the struggle would continue because “honor is above life.”

Also on Sunday, the sultanate’s spokesman, Idjarani, said Malaysian security forces killed an imam or priest and four children inside their home in Semporma, Sabah.

“This is incomprehensible. Killing a Muslim priest is not justifiable. It is not the sultanate of Sulu that’s worsening this conflict, it is the Malaysian government,” Idjarani said.

“They should not have resorted to that kind of action,” he added.

The Malaysian national news agency Bernama reported that five policemen were killed Saturday night while checking the presence of armed men in a village in Semporma. It did not mention the deaths of the imam but said two armed intruders were killed.

“I cannot describe how we feel. For the Malaysian authorities to do this to a Muslim priest and his defenseless children, I have no words to express what I feel,” Princess Jacel said.

The Kiram family said Agbimuddin’s forces captured four Malaysian officials following a clash in Semporna in Sabah, but did not say who they were.

Idjarani said the capture of the four Malaysians was triggered by the continued atrocities of the Malaysian government against the Filipinos living in Sabah.

He added that Sultan Kiram ordered his men to respect the rights of the four Malaysian prisoners. “The Filipinos know how to take care of their captured enemies,” he said.

He added that there were unconfirmed reports that other groups, possibly up to 1,000 armed men, arrived in Sabah on Saturday night to reinforce the group led by the sultan’s brother, but said this was not on orders of the sultan.

“This is an organized patriotic act in show of support to this struggle of the Sultanate of Sulu,” he said. “It was not ordered by the Sultan.”

In Lahad Datu, a Philippine humanitarian and consular team arrived to help Filipinos affected by the fighting in Sabah.

In a statement released on Sunday, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur informed the Malaysian authorities that an embassy team was already in Lahad Datu for a humanitarian and consular mission to Filipinos there.

On Sunday morning, Philippine ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya and Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jose Brillantes had a brief meeting with Royal Malaysian Police Inspector General Tan Sri Ismail Omar.

“We would like to see how we could work with local authorities in further assisting our nationals affected by the situation,” Brillantes said.

Malaya said that its team was in Lahad Datu to assists Filipinos who are wounded from the firefight Friday.

Brilliantes was dispatched from Manila to Malaysia last Feb. 25 to assist the Philippine Embassy in handling the situation. – With Ferdinand Fabella and Sara Susanne Fabunan

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