Malaysia summons Philippine diplomat over Sabah

MANILA, Philippines – Malaysia has summoned a Philippine embassy official to reject the Philippine president's position that his country will not drop its claim over Sabah, reports said Monday, May 25.

Channel News Asia said the Malaysian foreign ministry called in Medardo Macaraig, the Philippines' charge d'affaires in Malaysia, on May 19.

In a statement quoted by Bernama on Sunday, May 24, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman explained that the United Nations has considered Sabah a part of Malaysia since September 16, 1963.

Anifah said, "The government of Malaysia reiterates its position that Malaysia does not recognize and will not entertain any claims by any party on Sabah."

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs has not issued a response to its Malaysian counterpart.

Anifah's statement came after Philippine President Benigno Aquino III, in an interview with Filipino journalist Raissa Robles, said the Philippines will not drop its claim over Sabah. (READ: Sabah as the last gold coin)

Aquino, however, said people living in Sabah "will have to be asked where they want to go." He said he was told "that previously there already had been a plebiscite," in which Sabah residents "said they wanted to join the Malaysian Federation."

This plebiscite showed that Sabah and Sarawak "wanted to join the Malaysian federation," the Philippine Star's Ana Marie Pamintuan wrote. The Philippine government received the results of this plebiscite on September 13, 1963, and protested this days later.

In the interview that was published May 15, Aquino also pointed out that a number of Filipinos in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi use Malaysia's ringgit "to purchase their basic necessities from Sabah as opposed to Zamboanga," a peninsula in the southern Philippines.

'Can of worms'

The Philippine president said, "Do we really want to open that can of worms?" (READ: Sabah, Merdeka, and Aquino)

Sabah is a resource-rich area about the size of Ireland on the northern tip of remote Borneo island.

It was once under the control of the Sulu sultanate, which wielded power over the Sulu islands in the Muslim southern Philippines and part of Borneo. The advance of European colonialism, however, eroded the sultanate's powers.

It officially lost Sabah in 1878, via a loosely worded contract, to a British trading company that paved the way for it to eventually join the new nation of Malaysia in 1963.

While Sabah has prospered, the remote Sulu islands are among the poorest parts of the Philippines and a breeding ground for insurgents who dream of a Muslim homeland that is independent from the government in Manila.

Descendants of the Sulu sultans have continued to receive nominal rent from Malaysia of about $1,700 per year for Sabah under a deal inherited from European powers.

While the Philippines' claim over Sabah remains dormant, a recent story reignited interest in Sabah. Investigative news website Vera Files reported on March 30 that the Philippines "has offered to downgrade its claim on Sabah in exchange for Malaysia’s support for its case against China before the United Nations."

The Philippine government has denied this report. – with reports from Agence France-Presse/Rappler.com

Paterno R. Esmaquel II

Paterno R. Esmaquel II is a senior reporter leading Rappler’s coverage of religion and foreign affairs. He finished MA Journalism in Ateneo and MSc Asian Studies (Religions in Plural Societies) at RSIS, Singapore. For story ideas or feedback, email him at pat.esmaquel@rappler.com.

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