UNA on Sabah: Aquino sent mixed signals

CAGAYAN DE ORO CITY, Philippines – Opposition senatorial candidates said the Aquino administration could have handled the Sabah standoff better.

In phone interviews with Rappler on Friday, March 1, senatorial bets of the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) said the violence in Sabah was unfortunate and could have been avoided.

The candidates assessed the administration’s response to the standoff on the eve of UNA sorties in Mindanao.

President Aquino called on Kiram to ask his men to stand down but also reminded the group of possible violations of the Constitution.

“How could we have avoided [armed confrontation]? By sending clear signals. Case in point, the President sent mixed signals. We were asking the followers of Sultan Kiram to board a ship to take them home. At the same time, we implied in subsequent statements that charges were being prepared against them. That had to be clarified but it was not so followers were caught in a bind,” Honasan told Rappler.

He added, “That should have been calibrated. If you were in their place, it’s like being made to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. ‘You go home but we’ll file charges against you.”

Resigned Sen Juan Miguel Zubiri said that Aquino’s statement did not help ease the tension in Sabah.

“I would have wanted the government to have spoken to the Sultan of Sulu. I think that’s what he just wanted. He wanted a little acknowledgement that there will be some sort of support on his claims. The government could have addressed that without having to say ‘Bring your troops home first and discuss later.’”

Zubiri said, “That type of ultimatum is bordering on the arrogant, especially when there are lives in harm’s way and at stake.”

The former Bukidnon Rep said Aquino should “not have shut the door.”

“You never shut the door in negotiations. They should have thought of all types of negotiated settlement in this case.”

On Friday, the 17-day standoff ended after security forces assaulted Lahad Datu, Sabah, resulting in the death of one civilian and two Malaysian policemen, according to Malaysian officials.

In contrast to UNA, candidates of the administration slate Team PNoy expressed full support for Aquino’s handling of the issue.

‘Response subservient to Malaysia’

In a press statement, former Sen Richard Gordon also criticized the administration’s response as “severely, woeful, anti-Filipino and subservient to Malaysia.”

Gordon said the Department of Foreign Affairs should have led the response to the standoff “and must never compromise the President of the Philippines by allowing him to make comments on such issues.”

Gordon also said the government sent the wrong signal to Malaysia “when it portrayed the Filipinos pursuing the claim on Sabah as common criminals.”

“The Malaysians were allowed to think by our own authorities that Filipinos are expendable. The issue should have been more carefully handled by our foreign affairs officials, but clearly foreign policy and crisis management have not been the strong suit of this administration,” Gordon said.

Former Sen Ernesto Maceda also told Rappler that Aquino must take decisive action on the issue.

“It’s a hesitating stand, lackluster stand because from all the past presidents, nobody really pursued the matter seriously and even President Aquino has not taken a definite stand on claiming Sabah as a stand on our territory.”

“The Aquino administration must make a definite statement supporting the claim of the Sultan of Sulu to the territory. It hasn’t made a definite statement on the matter.”

San Juan Rep JV Ejercito said he would reserve judgment as the situation is still ongoing but said all sides must prevent the escalation of conflict.

“We appeal to our Muslim brothers to be calm and sober. Both the Sultanate of Sulu and the Malaysian government should sit down and talk and come up with terms acceptable to both. We have full trust in what the government is [doing] in this issue.”

‘Lawmakers also responsible’ 

Moving forward, Honasan said the government must avoid further deteriorating the situation, stressing that the issue is far from over.

The senator said government must come up with a “clear peace and foreign policy,” communicate better with Kiram and the Moro National Liberation Front, and reactivate the Joint Executive-Legislative Committee on Sabah that first met during the Ramos administration.

Honasan admitted that leaders past and present are responsible for the issue.

“From where I sit from the last 15 years, I cannot recall any initiative on our part to address this. Occasionally, we hear about it and I don’t think it was given enough emphasis and I think we should accept responsibility for that.”

“It was not placed in our order of national priority. Medyo napabayaan (We neglected it), but considering the potential impact on the peace process, I think there are important lessons to be learned,” Honasan added.

As an aspiring legislator, Zubiri said lawmakers must file a resolution to study the issue.

“We have to look at all the documentary evidence of the Sultan of Sulu. It will start there. If the documentary evidence weighs heavily on our favor, then the national government should decide whether to support the claim or out of friendship with Malaysia, abandon the claim.”

“It’s something that has to be decided upon with finality, put a closure to this particular chapter of disputes. It’s about time to find the appropriate response once and for all,” Zubiri added. – Rappler.com