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Saturday, May 28, 2016

Duterte’s bold statement worries Sabahans

The incoming president’s vow to pursue his country’s claim to Sabah appears to take it further than previous presidents.

YESTERDAY, Sabahans woke up to the screaming front-page headline “Duterte to pursue Sabah claim” in a local newspaper.

News junkies had already seen the story reported by Philippines news websites the night before.

The Filipino press on Thursday had reported that Philippines president elect Rodrigo Duterte had vowed to pursue his country’s claim to Sabah.

“I’ll stick to our claim,” he told the media when asked for his stand on Philippines’ claim to Sabah.

According to The Philippine Star, pressed if he would recognise the claim of the sultanate of Sulu on Sabah, Duterte replied: “Yes. What has been the policy will always be the policy of the Government, especially those for the interest of the country. We have to stake our claim.”

The Sulu sultanate, according to The Philippine Star, used to rule over parts of southern Philippines and Sabah.

However, in 1963, the British Government transferred Sabah to the Federation of Malaysia.

I’ve been made to understand that Malaysia does not recognise such claims and that Malaysia is a sovereign state recognised by the United Nations.

The photograph of the front-page headline was shared in my dozens of Sabah WhatsApp groups.

My fellow Sabahans were concerned that Duterte would pursue the matter.

Many lack the international perspective to understand the situation.

I understand the concerns of my fellow Sabahans. Many feel that they are living in an island paradise but surrounded by fake Malaysians who have staked a claim to their state.

Rightly or wrongly, they perceive that the genuine Sabahans have been outnumbered by the fake Sabahans. And the fear is one day the Filipinos will take over Sabah.

This fear was hammered home when (the late) Raja Muda Agbimuddin Kiram led some 200 gunmen of the Royal Sulu Army in the occupation of Kg Tanduo in Lahad Datu. The (late) Jamalul Kiram III, then self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, said his army had occupied Tanduo to claim Sabah.

Some 60 people, including nine Malaysian security personnel, were killed in the operations against the intruders.

To get an understanding of Duterte’s bombshell, I WhatsApp-ed Dr Zaini Othman, Universiti Malaysia Sabah (UMS) strategic and security research centre director, and Datuk Yong Teck Lee, a former Sabah Chief Minister who keenly watches Philippines politics and security.

> What’s your take on Duterte’s statement?

Dr Zaini: What has been said by Duterte is merely a “political statement” which made no difference (whether it is DROP or PURSUE). We must understand that in the run for the presidential post, Duterte received a large chunk of political votes or support from southern Philippines.

And above all (including previous presidents), for them to say that “they will drop” or “not to pursue”, the so-called “claim on Sabah” very much involved the pride of Philippines’ political integrity.

Yong: Duterte’s statement so early, even before he has been sworn in as president, is a cause for concern as he is now riding high on Philippines’ public opinion.

> Is there a difference between what he said and what other Philippines presidents have said? Previous presidents after Ferdinand Marcos (who wanted to claim Sabah by force in the 1970s) would say they will not DROP the Sabah claim but Duterte said he will PURSUE.

Dr Zaini: What has been said by Duterte is similar to the previous presidents’ political stand as far as the “claim on Sabah” issue is concerned.

In other words, the “Sabah claim” issue will remain as one of the “central issues” in every run-up to the Philippines presidential election.

Yong: Duterte said to PURSUE which is an intention to take an active course of action. Whereas to not drop the claim is (as previously used) is to put the claim at the “back burner” (i.e. to neither revive nor bury the claim).

For some, what Duterte said is rhetoric. Nevertheless, such rhetoric will embolden the Filipinos and Moros, including those already in Malaysia.

> Why is the Sabah claim issue still relevant in the Philippines, despite the state forming Malaysia in 1963?

Dr Zaini: The so-called “claim on Sabah” has become an integral part of the Philippines presidential election. And more often than not, the said issue has been “over-killed” by every newly elected president. The southern Philippines conflict has overshadowed the “Sabah claim” issues.

Yong: The Sabah claim is an issue that helps to fan Filipino nationalism.

In the minds of many Filipinos, they have a legitimate claim. Hence, Filipino leaders cannot take the political risks of dropping the claim.

> Why do Sabahans jump when they see such statements from Duterte?

Dr Zaini: Perhaps what makes Sabahans “worried” pertaining to the Duterte statement is relating to the popularly known images of Duterte, vis-a-vis, “the Punisher”. But I’m pretty confident, despite his popular image as “a punisher”, the so-called “carrot and stick” policy will not practically work when dealing with intra-nation issues; and Duterte, I believe, is pretty aware about this.

Yong: Duterte is like a cowboy who shoots first, talks later.

This is his public image. Hence, with the background of Tanduo and Abu Sayyaf’s cross border violent crimes, Sabahans are jittery when we hear such talk of the Sabah claim from Filipino leaders.

There was hope that a new president would bring about fresh conciliatory words. But this is not the case with Duterte.

A lot now depends on how our Malaysian Government handles the Philippines’ claim to Sabah.

Passive or active or do nothing?

For me (Philip Golingai), Malaysians are lucky that the Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Anifah Aman is a Sabahan. He’ll know the situation on the ground. And he knows what’s best for his state. In Anifah we trust.

By Philip Golingai

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