By Raïssa Robles
President Benigno Aquino has categorically stated that he will not drop the Philippine claim to Sabah, contrary to what critics of his centerpiece legislation on Muslim autonomy – the Bangsamoro Basic Law – are saying.
During my recent wide-ranging interview with him that lasted over two hours in Malacanang Palace, I asked President Aquino directly whether he was going to drop Sabah.
“No,” he said.
When I asked him if Malaysia had offered a quid pro quo – Kuala Lumpur’s support of the Philippine claim in the West Philippine Sea in exchange for Manila’s dropping of the Sabah claim – President Aquino also replied “No.”
I am posting at the end a video clip from the entire interview that has to do with the Sabah issue. I had to cut away a small portion of it because he placed that off the record.
This morning when I attended the forum on the BBL which presented the Filipino public opinion on the matter, I decided to share what Aquino had told me during my lengthy interview with him for South China Morning Post (HK). This was after I realized that much of the animosity of the people of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi – as well as a lot of Netizens on Facebook – toward the BBL stemmed from the Sabah issue.
They believe that in exchange for Malaysia’s brokering the peace deal between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, President Aquino would express his gratitude by dropping the Sabah claim.
During the forum this morning at the University of the Philippines, Dr. Carmen Abubakar, former dean of the University of the Philippines Institute of Islamic Studies asked MILF chief negotiator Mohagher Iqbal – who was also present – why “from day one” Sabah was not included in the discussions.
Iqbal replied that Sabah “is a foreign affairs issue”, meaning it was beyond the powers granted by the BBL.
For the first time, though, Iqbal spoke lengthily about the Sabah issue. Whenever I had asked him about it, he had always dodged the question. Today, he said for the first time that “personally” and “perhaps it reflects the position of the MILF, the Sabah claim will not be dropped. However, pursuing the Sabah claim would need two aspects – whether the claim would involve a sovereignty claim or a proprietary claim.”
And for the first time in the 18 years I have been covering the MILF peace talks and interviewing Iqbal as a source, he categorically said: “Organizationally, we would not agree to the dropping of the Sabah claim. Whoever drops the Sabah claim, magkakaroon ng (will suffer from) karma.”
But he reiterated that “the issue is whether to proceed on the sovereignty or proprietary claim. That will be be the decision of the Philippine government and the Sultanate (of Sulu).”
Please note that Iqbal was referring to whether Sabah is being claimed as part of Philippine territory or as a piece of property in Malaysian territory that is owned by the Sultanate of Sulu.
Personally, I feel it is unfair to demand that the BBL should contain a section on the Sabah issue when neither the 1996 peace deal of Moro National Liberation Front Nur Misuari nor the 1976 Tripoli Agreement, which Misuari also signed, made no mention of Sabah.
Misuari would have been in the proper position to raise the Sabah issue since his ancestor was the commander of the military force sent by the Sultanate of Sulu to come to the aid of his relative, the Sultan of Brunei. In gratitude for helping stamp out a rebellion, the Sultan of Brunei gave Sabah as a gift to the Sultanate of Sulu.
Because of this, I happen to believe that Sabah is part of the ancestral homeland of the people of Sulu and Tawi-Tawi. But the issue can be resolved in a peaceful and just manner. And it is to Malaysia’s interest to resolve it in that manner. As well as to ensure that the BBL uplifts the lives of all Moros of all ethnic groups.
In any case, after Iqbal spoke, Almarim Tillah, the former Tawi-Tawi governor and ex-Senator Santanina Rasul’s brother – whom I have also interviewed as a source – again stood up and underscored the need to discuss Sabah as an issue now, in connection with the passage of the BBL law.
Tillah questioned the use of Malaysia as the broker of the peace talks when Malaysia “is a party in interest” because of Sabah.
After I shared what Pres. Aquino had told me, Tillah spoke up again saying, “he (Aquino) has never made a statement (on Sabah) categorically….I have not heard our president (speak on the issue).”
So why – of all people – did the President tell me his stand on Sabah?
Only because I had asked him about it.
After I had asked him about Sabah, Aquino turned to an aide to ask what other activities he had that afternoon.
It was a broad hint for me to wind up the interview. But I did not take the hint. :)
You can listen to the video and read the transcript of the interview:
Interview with President Benigno Aquino III on the Sabah issue:
Raissa Robles: Sir, sources have told me it was Malaysia which first offered a quid pro quo. But if the Philippines drops the claim to Sabah, Kuala Lumpur would back the Philippine claim in the West Philippine Sea. Is this true?
PRESIDENT AQUINO: No.
Raissa Robles: It’s not?
PRESIDENT AQUINO: If you look at the note verbale, it doesn’t even mention anything about Sabah. At saka ‘di ba, parang…Sorry…[Ito na naman ‘yung my smile that gets me into trouble.]
Raissa Robles: [laughs] Okay.
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Iyong giving up Sabah does not that open such a big can of worms in this country. Remember even my mother was attacked na, ‘are you giving up Sabah?’ et cetera, et cetera.
Raissa Robles: Yes.
PRESIDENT AQUINO: And what do we get in return? Another country helped us…You know, the other version of that it helped us in the UN (United Nations). So if Malaysia pulls its weight, it can convince all the other member countries in the UN to support our claim in the South China Sea or even within ASEAN. They are hosts for…They can support resolves the issues in the South China Sea and I gave up Sabah, and I open myself up to such a juicy item for all of the media to pounce on? To anybody who has entertained this idea that that was possible, that really smack so much of your rationality.
Raissa Robles: How is your attitude to Sabah, then?
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Leila (de Lima), SOJ (Secretary of Justice), did a study and perhaps one of the biggest issues there is the right of self-determination, which is I understand part of the UN Charter, okay.
It’s supposed to trump everything whether historical fact et cetera. At the end of the day, the people who are living there and if they are asked, ‘Will they say, they want to join us or they want to join Malaysia?’ There was supposed to have been a vote done —
Raissa Robles: 1960 —
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Whatever year it was.
Raissa Robles: 1960s under Foreign Secretary Emmanuel Pelaez. But he condemned that and he said that cannons were being brought all over the place to –
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Then that will be redone again. And we are having that understanding.
Raissa Robles: But are you going to openly tackle the Sabah question in your term or you prefer not to
PRESIDENT AQUINO: After I’m presented with a very good case, then baka pwedeng… [Sandali ha, off the record lang muna]
Raissa Robles: But you are not going to drop Sabah?
PRESIDENT AQUINO: No.
Raissa Robles: Okay, that’s a no.
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Pero ano it goes back to that enshrined right of self-determination. They will have to be asked where they want to go. And I am told that previously there had already been a plebiscite done to which they said they wanted to join the Malayan Federation.
Raissa Robles: But Pelaez said…Actually Pelaez gave me some papers, e during that time because I was covering him —
PRESIDENT AQUINO: Parang ngayon ‘di ba, parang some of our citizens in Basulta in Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi used the Ringgit to purchase their basic necessities from Sabah as opposed to Zamboanga. Do we really want to open that can of worms?
Raissa Robles: Actually, sir, I have a lot to say about Sabah but this is not the right time…Okay —