MANILA, Philippines --- Amid the ongoing attacks of Malaysian military forces against followers of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo, former President Fidel V. Ramos yesterday called for an immediate cessation of hostilities in Sabah.
“There should be a ceasefire for the restoration of goodwill, friendship, and harmony,” Ramos said before his departure to Taiwan.
Ramos said the solution to the conflict in Sabah is for both parties from the Philippines and Malaysia to sit down in a meeting without delay.
“I would rather advise our President (Benigno Aquino III) to be on a one-on-one meeting,” Ramos said.
Ramos said the issue of an immediate ceasefire agreement is necessary at this stage because “war is not an option.”
The government, he said, should find ways to prevent Tausug men sailing from Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi to Sabah to reinforce members of the royal army of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III since it will only worsen the situation.
“The message of the Sultanate has been received by the world. That is enough,” Ramos told reporters.
Despite Ramos’ advice, Malacañang stressed that there will be no dialogue unless Kiram orders his followers to pull out of Sabah.
Deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said President Aquino has been clear from the beginning of the standoff that Kiram and his followers should go home first before they could hold a dialogue.
President Aquino also ruled out waging a war with its long-time ally Malaysia over the country’s unresolved claim to Sabah but lamented the existing “propaganda war” spawned by the latest conflict.
Speaking at a Team PNoy campaign rally in General Santos City, the President said he would not support the violent route pursued the armed followers of the Sultanate of Sulu in Sabah and push the country into a brink of war with Malaysia.
While he expressed regret over the loss of lives in the Malaysia’s operations against the Kiram group, Aquino said they have unnecessarily dragged the Filipino nation into the conflict and placed the country’s ties with Malaysia at risk.
Aquino instead pushed for a peaceful resolution to questions concerning the territorial claim which he said remains convoluted at the moment.
Give PNoy A Chance – JV
As this developed, United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) senatorial candidate San Juan City Rep. JV Ejercito Estrada called on the Filipino people to set aside political differences and give President Aquino the chance to peacefully resolve the Sabah crisis.
Ejercito Estrada made the appeal amid conflicting opinions on the matter, with some sectors criticizing the way Malacañang is handling the situation.
The San Juan solon said the nation must be united during these trying times as he urged various sectors not to inject politics into this crisis. He emphasized that the safety of our Filipino brothers and sisters is paramount
“I would want the President and his men to be given enough space to resolve the crisis peacefully and exhaust all means diplomatically,” he said.
Kiram’s ‘Army’ Elusive
As this developed, Malaysian security forces scouring rugged terrain in Borneo yesterday briefly battled armed Filipino intruders who were on the run after being bombarded with airstrikes and mortar fire, police said.
The capture of nearly 200 members of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo would ease public nervousness in Malaysia’s resource-rich eastern state of Sabah, which has been shaken in the past week by the killing of eight police officers and 19 Filipino gunmen who slipped into neighboring Malaysia.
The search and mopping up operation, dubbed “Ops Daulat,” to flush out the armed Filipinos in Kampung Tanduo, Felda Sahabat 17, near Lahad Datu, continued yesterday.
Bernama checks found the situation in Lahad Datu and Semporna are still under control.
In Felda Sahabat, tighter control by security forces under “Ops Daulat” still taking effect within 10-km radius of Kampung Tanduo.
Malaysian soldiers and police on Tuesday attacked the area that the Filipinos have occupied for three weeks in an extraordinary siege intended to highlight their territorial claim to the entire state of Sabah, which the Filipinos insist is their ancestral birthright.
Malaysia’s national news agency reported that F-18 and Hawk fighters were used in the air strike against Kiram’s “army.”
But the Sultanate of Sulu said the Malaysian bombers hit the wrong target as the followers of Sultan Kiram III, led by his younger brother Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, had already abandoned the area. The area is now occupied by Malaysian security forces.
More than 24 hours after the assault codenamed “Operation Sovereign” was launched, Malaysia’s national police chief Ismail Omar said the main encounter was an exchange of gunfire in the hilly coastal district that’s thick with foliage slightly after dawn on Wednesday.
Malaysian forces shot and possibly killed one of the clansmen, who appear to be trying to escape the area, Ismail said.
“We’re in a good position. We ask the public not to panic,” Ismail said, adding that authorities would expand their search area beyond the current 4 square kilometers (1.5 square miles).
Relatives of the rajah muda in Manila said he had informed them by telephone that he and his followers remain unhurt.
“Bombs were dropped, but they are still safe,” said Princess Jacel Kiram, daughter of Sultan Kiram III.
Commenting on Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman’s announcement this week that the group was being formally considered terrorists, Kiram said, “Malaysia wants us dead, and all we want is to talk.”
“It’s unacceptable!” Princess Jacel said of the terrorist tag.
“We are not terrorists,” Sultan Kiram III said.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) denied reports that Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario agreed with the Malaysian authorities’ labeling of the followers of Kiram III as “terrorists.”
DFA spokesman Raul Hernandez said that according to Secretary del Rosario, he and Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman agreed that if the reports that members of the police force in Semporna were lured into an ambush and killed and then their bodies brutally mutilated and desecrated, then these were indeed acts of terrorism.
Malaysia had repeatedly urged the Filipinos to leave peacefully after they slipped past naval patrols last month and scared away villagers in an obscure part of Sabah’s eastern seaboard.
The Filipinos refused to leave, insisting that Sabah, a state rich with timber and oil, had once belonged to their royal sultanate for more than a century and should be handed back.
Fighter jets and group forces attacked the area after the Filipinos fatally shot two Malaysia policemen last week. Six other police officers were ambushed and killed by other Filipino assailants believed to be linked to the clansmen at a waterfront village in another Sabah district on Saturday.
Del Rosario met his Malaysian counterpart this week and “pursued the possibility of allowing for an unconditional surrender of the group to avert further loss of lives and allow them to return to their respective homes and families,” the DFA said.
Malaysian government officials have said the Filipinos must be prosecuted either in Malaysia or the Philippines for crimes such as murder.
The crisis has triggered fears that violence could spread in Sabah, a short boat ride from Muslim-majority Mindanao provinces wracked by a decades-old insurgency. Sabah is also home to an estimated 800,000 Filipino settlers who’ve traveled here over the years to seek work and stability.
Activists have called for tougher border security and immigration policies in Sabah, presenting a major political challenge to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s ruling coalition, which faces general elections that must be held by the end of June.
Some fear the crisis will also complicate peace talks brokered by Malaysia between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), the main Muslim rebel group in the southern Philippines.
Former First Gentleman Jose Miguel Arroyo, meanwhile, said former President and now Pampanga Rep. Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was shocked after President Benigno S. Aquino III blamed her and her allies as the ones behind the Sabah standoff.
“She was terribly shocked,” said Atty. Arroyo when asked for reaction about the allegation of the Aquino administration that the past administration was behind the crisis in Sabah.
“Sabi ko nga, ano ba yan? Baka pati pagkamatay ni Rizal ibintang niya kay Gloria,” said Atty. Arroyo, who was interviewed by reporters shortly after he attended the trial of NBN-ZTE deal hearing at the Sandiganbayan where he stands as one of the accused.
Meanwhile, the missing letter written by the brother of the Sulu Sultan to President Aquino days before he took his oath in June 2010 has been found.
This was revealed by the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in a Q-and-A on the Lahad Datu situation posted on its website.
“That letter has been found with the DFA,” it said. “Foreign Affairs Secretary Albert del Rosario is taking full responsibility for the oversight.”
That so-called “missing” letter was written by the rajah muda (crown prince) wherein he congratulated and expressed his clan’s support for the Aquino administration, and informed the President about the creation of the Interim Supreme Royal Ruling Council (ISRRC) under the Sultanate.
The letter further asked President Aquino to allow the sultanate’s participation in the Malaysian-brokered peace talks.
With regards to another letter, this time written by Sultan Kiram III to the United Nations (UN) Human Rights Committee, the DFA said it is the Sultan’s right to make an appeal to the world body’s Human Rights Committee.
The DFA also dismissed Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) Nur Misuari’s suggestion to involve the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in the negotiations between Malaysia and the Sultanate of Sulu.
It pointed out that the issue is a domestic one and is therefore outside the purview of the OIC.
Team PNoy, meanwhile, defended President Aquino’s presence in its campaign sorties in the wake of Malaysia’s military offensive against more than 200 followers of Kiram III and the death of some of them in Sabah island.
Aquino was at General Santos City, South Cotabato, yesterday to pitch for votes for the 12-man Team PNoy senatorial ticket. He will be in Davao City where another campaign rally is scheduled by Mayor Sarah Duterte and her father, Vice Mayor Rodrigo Duterte. (With reports from AP, PNA/Bernama, Madel R. Sabater, Edd K. Usman, Roy C. Mabasa, Genalyn D. Kabiling, and Ben R. Rosario)