MALAYBALAY CITY (MindaNews/28 February) – Like in Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hide,” President Benigno Aquino III has displayed a split personality type of diplomacy.
On one hand, Aquino showed a semblance of resolve in a territorial dispute with China over the Spratly Islands, although his action showed he presumed automatic US support in case relations with Beijing worsen. But on the other hand, he is acting more like the Prime Minister of Malaysia with regard to the dormant Philippine claim on Sabah, a region in North Borneo that belongs to the Sultanate of Sulu.
The President’s statements suggest that his foremost concern is to avoid displeasing Kuala Lumpur instead of addressing the issue head-on. Is history on the side of Sultan of Sulu Jamalul Kiram III and his younger brother Prince Rajah Mudah Agbimuddin Kiram, who as of this writing (February 28) has continued to defy warnings by Malaysia for them to move out of Sabah peacefully? Is the government still keen on pursuing the Sabah claim after years of being sidelined?
These are some of the questions that Aquino should have confronted. Unfortunately, he skirted the issue by threatening to file criminal cases against the Kirams. Worse, he expressed doubts and put to ridicule the bases cited by the Kirams in their struggle to regain possession of Sabah.
The least that can be said of the President’s statements is ignorance of history. He sounded as clueless as the frog inside the well that thinks the world is but a span of blue sky.
Aquino said: “This issue is complex: from the basis of our claim, to the question of the rightful heirs, and even involving the translation of documents from an era when our grandparents weren’t even born.”
Complexity is no excuse for inaction. History, as shown by the logic that can be drawn from the documents on the lease of Sabah, is clear on the legitimacy of the claim. By signing a lease agreement with the Sultanate of Sulu, it can be safely presumed that the British North
Borneo Co. and later Malaysia recognized the Sultanate as a political institution, a sovereign even, which may enter into contracts. It should not matter if later developments have changed the status of the Sultanate; what should count was the reality surrounding such agreement then.
Maybe present realities no longer favor pursuing the Sabah claim. Consider this report by Ed Lingao of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (MindaNews, February 21, 2013): “Many of the Tausugs we encountered detested the idea of the Philippine government reclaiming Sabah. Refugees from war and poverty, many of these Tausugs see little benefit in a Sabah under the Philippine flag; in fact, for them, it is a worrying proposition, not unlike jumping from the clichéd frying pan into an even bigger fire.”
Then there is the peace process between the Moro Islamic Liberation Front and the Philippine government being brokered by Malaysia. Perhaps this is one of the things at the back of Aquino’s mind when he convinced the Kirams to leave Sabah. He could be thinking that a miscalculation on Sabah might negate the gains of the peace talks.
Nevertheless, Aquino should not start from muddling the legitimacy of the claim with these issues. Determine first if the claim stands on solid legal and historical grounds, and from there define the course of action taking into account the current realities. (MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. H. Marcos C. Mordeno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)