Mindanao bishops to gov’t on Sabah crisis: “Save our people – with honor”

DAVAO CITY (MindaNews/09 March) —  “You may not agree with the methods used. You may not agree with the ultimate aim. You may say that the entire Sabah event was both foolhardy and also wrong. You might even suspect that there are unseen minds behind the event (but) the fact is: Filipino lives have been lost” and further bloodshed must be prevented “for the sake of life and peace,” Mindanao’s Catholic bishops said in a statement dated March 8 but released on March 9.

“Even now Filipino lives are at stake. They were lost because they believed they have a right to reclaim a naturally rich territory for which they are being paid a measly sum every year. We cannot simply let them sacrifice more lives for that cause,” the statement from the “Catholic Bishops of Mindanao” signed initially by 11 Mindanao bishops, and addressed “to our government leaders,” said.

One of the signatories to the statement titled “Save our people – with honor,” told MindaNews they did not address it to anyone specific because it is not only for President Aquino but for his Cabinet,  Senators and other government officials.

The Bishops said government leaders “can do more than just tell them to get out,” apparently referring to the followers of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III who sailed to Lahad Datu, Sabah a month ago to assert the claim of the Sultanate of Sulu’s heirs over Sabah. and had a standoff with Malaysian authorities until violence broke out on March 1.

“For the sake of life and peace,” the Bishops issued a four-point appeal “to our government leaders”  to: “support the appeal of the United Nations for an immediate end of the violence in Sabah; press upon the two contending forces to heed the UN call; resume the diplomatic work of resolving the proprietary and the sovereignty questions, a task historically entrusted to the government by the Sultanate of Sulu; and thus to ensure the withdrawal with honor of armed forces from the area.”

Malaysia on March 5 launched “Ops Dalaut,” a joint police-military operations to flush out the Sultan’s followers from Lahad Datu. The group. led by Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the Sultan’s younger brother, has been labeled “terrorist” by Malaysian authorities.

As of Saturday, March 9, Malaysian officials claimed that with the killing of another “Sulu gunman” Saturday morning, the death toll had reached 61, eight of them  Malaysian policemen and 53 allegedly from Kiram’s group. Abraham Idjirani, the spokesperson of the Sulu Sultan in Taguig City said they could confirm only ten of Kiram’s followers were killed.

Malaysian authorities also announced on Friday, according to a report from the state-owned news agency, Bernama, that 79 persons believed to be members and supporters of Kiram have been detained  under the new security act of Malaysia. (see other story)

UN’s call to end violence

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on March 7 urged an end to violence in Sabah and called for a dialogue among all parties to peacefully settle the problem.

He also expressed concern about the “impact this situation may have on the civilian population, including migrants in the region” and urged all parties to “facilitate delivery of humanitarian assistance and act in full respect of international human rights norms and standards.”

The Sulu  Sultan declared a ceasefire at noon, a few hours after the UN Secretary-General’s call but Malaysia rejected the truce offer in the afternoon, saying Kiram’s group must lay down their arms and surrender unconditionally.

Before violence broke out on March 1, President Aquino had appealed to the Sultan to order his men to return home. On March 2, he called on Kiram’s group who are still in Sabah to “surrender now, without conditions.

“If you have grievances, the path you chose was wrong. The just, and indeed, the only correct thing for you to do is to surrender,” he said.

On March 4,  he said the only way to end the Sabah crisis is for all parties to exercise calm, restraint, and come to the table together with open minds for “reasonable dialogue” to commence.

During the campaign sortie of his Team PNoy senatorial bets morning of March 6 in  General Santos City, the President said the bloodshed in Sabah could have been avoided if only the group heeded his call to surrender unconditionally.

In the evening in Davao City, he reiterated  the need for sobriety and “reasonable dialogue,” claiming Kiram’s group has endangered not only themselves but almost a million Filipinos living and working in Sabah and the 90 million Filipinos in the country.

In the morning of  March 7, still in Davao City, President Aquino  told a press conference after his speech at the opening ceremony of the Meetings, Incentive Travels, Conventions, Exhibitions and Events Conference, that he ordered the Department of Justice, National Bureau of Investigation and the Philippine National Police to gather evidence that may warrant the filing of charges against the  Sulu Sultan  and his followers.


The bishops concluded their five-paragraph statement by praying that “government leaders on both sides demonstrate wisdom and statesmanship in preventing further bloodshed and resolving the basic issues that resulted in tragedy.”

“ We pray for all the casualties, both Filipino and Malaysian, in the conflict. We pray for their grieving families,,” the Bishops said.

The statement was signed by 11 Bishops, with a note that “other bishops are still being contacted.”  Mindanao has 21 bishops.

The signatories of the statement are  Archbishops Antonio Ledesma, SJ of Cagayan de Oro and Orlando Quevedo, OMI of Cotabto;  and Bishops Guillermo Afable  of Digos, Jose Colin Bagaforo of Cotabato,  Antonieto Cabajog of Surigao, Jose Cabantan  of Malaybalay,  Elenito Galido of Iligan, Dinualdo Gutierrez of  Marbel, Martin Jumoad  of Isabela City in Basilan, Angelito Lampon of Jolo, and Edwin dela Peña of Marawi.

The Bishops-Ulama Conference, the 16-year old organization of Mindanao’s Catholic and Protestant bishops and Muslim Ulama, has yet to issue a statement. (Carolyn O. Arguillas/MindaNews)