(Manila Bulletin) - The Philippine government has appealed to Malaysia to allow its humanitarian mission to enter Sabah to assist Filipinos affected by the bloody clashes between the Sulu Sultanate’s army and Malaysian forces following reports that Malaysian border authorities have blocked the entry of a Philippine ship seeking to provide assistance to Filipinos living in Sabah.
Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte said Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario has sent a note verbale to the Malaysian Ambassador to the Philippines seeking permission for the Philippine contingent that will extend humanitarian and consular aid to Filipinos in Sabah.
“We have been asking for full access to those who are in custody and we were asking for the go-signal to be able to treat the wounded, to provide consular assistance,” she said over government radio. “As of today, the ship remains at the border ready to be deployed as soon as we have the signal to do so,” she added.
She said the government’s main concern is the safety of the 800,000 Filipinos living in Sabah who may be affected by the gunfight in the area.
Amid the rising death toll, President Benigno S. Aquino III earlier called on the Filipino gunmen pressing claim over Sabah to surrender to avoid bloodshed. Aquino expressed concern about the welfare of other Filipinos whose lives are put at risk by the action of the Sulu sultan’s followers in Sabah.
Valte said the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) has opened a “humanitarian corridor” in Sulu to assist families of the slain Filipino gunmen. The social workers will provide counselling and other assistance to families of those who perished in the gunbattle in Sabah, according to Valte.
Malacañang once again appealed to the loyalists of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III holding fort in Sabah to reconsider their defiance and surrender immediately “to preserve life.”
Valte assured that the territorial claim on Sabah, which the Sultanate of Sulu has been fighting for, is now under study by the Philippine government.
“Surrender is the best way at this point to preserve lives of the people who are there,” Valte said in Pilipino over government radio.
“I don’t think anybody would really say that somebody needs to die for this. There is no need for more people to die. We have other ways on how to discuss and pursue their proprietary claim,” she added.
Valte said no one has the right to endanger the lives of the 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah and the Republic just because of a proprietary claim by the Sultanate of Sulu.
The fate of the Filipino gunmen in Sabah, on the other hand, is now in the hands of the Malaysian authority, according to Valte.
“That is up to the Malaysian authorities. It is not a secret that they have control of the situation there at present,” she said when asked if the Filipinos who surrender will be arrested or given safe passage back to the Philippines.
The Malaysian government earlier warned it would take drastic action against the Filipino gunmen if they don’t surrender. At least 12 Filipinos were reportedly killed in the violent encounter with the Malaysian troops seeking to end the standoff that started early last month in Sabah.
President Aquino has called on Kiram’s supporters to surrender without conditions to avoid violence but the Sulu sultan has rejected this request.
Valte said the invasion of the sultan’s followers in Sabah was the “wrong method” to pursue their ancestral land since it was putting the lives of other Filipinos at risk.
She also compared the incident in Sabah to a home invasion where intruders demand to be heard. It is difficult to talk with intruders especially if they are armed, she added.
Allaying concerns the government has abandoned its claim over Sabah, Valte said the President has already ordered a study into the historical and legal context of the decades-old claim to the land.
Malacanang, meantime, could still not confirm if the President has already contacted Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak about the situation in Sabah.
When asked if the President has appealed to Malaysia not to kill the Filipinos in the disputed territory, Valte said the Philippine government has been “continuously coordinating” with the Malaysian authorities and the Kiram family to reach a peaceful solution to the conflict in Sabah.
She said the President continues to monitor the situation in Sabah and remains in contact with concerned government officials.
Meanwhile, senators yesterday urged the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) to intensify dialogues and diplomacy with Malaysia as it pursues an immediate resolution to the crisis that erupted in Sabah.
Sen. Loren Legarda said the DFA should ensure that collateral damage among Filipinos in Sabah is minimized following the reported clashes between the Malaysian police and supporters of Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III in Sabah.
Sen. Francis Escudero said the country’s interest should be detached from the private claim of the Sulu Sultanate since involving the whole nation in it may affect the Philippines’ good relations with Malaysia.
“My personal view is that the Sabah claim is a personal issue involving the Sultan of Sulu,” Escudero said.
“It’s a private right and a private claim. He cannot say, however, that Sabah is part of the Philippines,” he pointed out. (With a report fro Hannah L. Torregoza)