ASIA NEWS NETWORK
WE KNOW ASIA BETTER
A situation so delicate for Aquino
Publication Date : 04-03-2013
A Filipino contact whom I’ve not been in touch with for seven or eight years called me this week for coffee at a five-star hotel in Kuala Lumpur.
I didn’t bother to ask him why he wanted to meet me as the reason was pretty obvious. About 224 (this figure varies according to sources) of his countrymen (and women) are holed up at Kampung Tanduo, Lahad Datu.
Over cafe latte, we discussed what was happening in Sabah and in Manila. My perception over what is in the mind of Malacanang Palace (the official residence of the president of the Philippines) changed after our conversation ended.
The Lahad Datu standoff is a delicate situation for President Benigno S. Aquino III.
“The president has to handle the standoff carefully,” my contact told me.
“But I thought people in the south of Philippines are usually dispensable,” I said, playing the devil’s advocate. I’m also familiar with how (in general) some people in Manila perceive their fellow countrymen living down south.
“No, the president cannot be seen to be harsh on Filipinos who are pursuing Philippine territory,” he said. “He wants a peaceful solution to the standoff.”
There is also a fear in Malacanang that if there are casualties, the Filipinos would see them as martyrs who died fighting for the Sabah claim.
The Sabah claim has become a political hot potato for President Aquino. If (self-proclaimed) Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III’s call for Philippines to pursue the Sabah claim gains traction in his country, Aquino might have to take a less diplomatic stance on the issue.
“This might jeopardise the good relations between Manila and Kuala Lumpur,” said the contact. “At the moment Malaysia is brokering the peace deal between Malacanang and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.
“My president has called your prime minister to ask him for a peaceful solution to the standoff,” he said. “That is why Malaysia extended the deadline several times.”
The other worry that Aquino has is that he’s leading Team PNoy (PNoy is a combination of two words - Pinoy and Noynoy, Aquino’s nickname) in the 2013 mid-term elections in the Philippines. If the Lahad Datu standoff is not handled delicately, it might cost his team votes.
At the same time, Aquino has also to worry about the broad implication of the Sabah claim. In an impromptu interview, the president spoke of his apprehensions over the situation.
“If we agree that the Sultan of Sulu owns Sabah, does that also mean that they own Sulu? If we (the sultanate) own Sulu, can we (the sultanate) suddenly say we are separate from the Philippines?” the president told reporters in an interview described as “free-wheeling”.
Aquino also said: “They have at least five people who are claiming to be the Sultan of Sulu. So that is one of my first problems — who actually represents the Sultanate of Sulu?”
Aquino posed a question on the agreement the Sulu sultanate signed in January 1878 to lease part of North Borneo (Sabah) to the British North Borneo Co.
That document had gone through “massive amendments” and had been translated into English, French and Tausug, he said.
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.
“Whether to keep the claim dormant or revive it is part of the (Sabah) question.”
Some Filipinos have attacked the president for his less “nationalistic” view of the Sabah claim.
On Twitter, I’ve been involved in several skirmishes with Filipinos who insist that Sabah is theirs. They also say that their president is “weak” in his stance towards Sabah.
The other Filipino I was in contact with was Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, brother of the self-styled Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, who is leading the “Royal Sulu Army” in Lahad Datu. I managed to get his 014-number.
He sounded calm during the call four days before the gunbattle between Malaysian forces and his men on Friday, where two policemen and 12 intruders were killed.
The self-proclaimed Raja Muda reiterated what he had been telling the world that he was in Lahad Datu to claim Sabah.
In my several phone calls to Agbimuddin, he remained defiant, saying he would not surrender and that he was not afraid to die for his cause.
Since Friday’s shootings, calls to his phone number went to voice mail that announced “the mailbox you are calling is full”.
I suspect his phone - unless it is a sturdy Nokia – has become a casualty in the shootout.
The standoff in Lahad Datu has turned into a “surrender or face drastic action” situation. But I’m told that Aquino is still hoping for a diplomatic end.