Sabah conflict won't affect Malaysia-Philippines ties: diplomat

Four months after the violence in Sabah, migrant workers are slowly returning, and suspects are being brought to justice.

By Andhika Bhakti for Khabar Southeast Asia in Jakarta

June 15, 2013
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The Sabah intrusion did not damage ties between Malaysia and the Philippines or the Mindanao peace process, which is headed for a "successful conclusion" in a few weeks, according to Philippines Ambassador to Malaysia J. Eduardo Malaya.

  • The self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, is seen at his home in Manila on March 7th, after he announced, via his spokesman Abraham Indrijani that he had ordered his followers in Sabah to declare a ceasefire. [Jay Directo/AFP]

    The self-proclaimed Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram III, is seen at his home in Manila on March 7th, after he announced, via his spokesman Abraham Indrijani that he had ordered his followers in Sabah to declare a ceasefire. [Jay Directo/AFP]

"The Mindanao peace process continues despite the incident and the process is heading to a successful conclusion in a few weeks' time. For this, the Philippines is grateful to the adept and fair facilitation by Malaysia," Bernama quoted the diplomat as saying at a June 10th reception to mark Philippines Independence Day, at his office in Kuala Lumpur.

Nevertheless, both sides should increase their mutual engagement in the business, economic and cultural spheres, he added.

"Let us enhance our ties in bilateral relations as well as in our partnership in ASEAN," he added.

Incident reports still pending

In early February, about 235 followers of Muslim clan leader Jamalul Kiram III, self-professed heir to the now-defunct Sultanate of Sulu, landed on the east coast of Malaysia's Sabah state on the island of Borneo and staked a territorial claim there.

After a three-week standoff, Malaysia began a major military assault on the intruders in early March. The fighting killed 68 Filipinos and 10 Malaysian security personnel, according to AFP.

The Philippine government has ordered investigations into the incident, to examine the validity of Kiram's claim to Sabah, and whether the events were an attempt to disrupt the peace process between the government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

According to The Philippine Star, a National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) report recommended criminal charges against the Sultan and 38 armed followers arrested March 13th as they returned from Sabah. It said they should be indicted for inciting war with Malaysia, The Star said in its report, published June 5th.

But authorities quickly denied the media story, saying the matter was still under review.

"We are still consolidating all final reports, and co-ordination is now being made with the Criminal Investigation and Detection Group and the Department of Justice prosecutors," NBI director Nonnatus Rojas told reporters as quoted by GMA News Online.

"Nothing is official yet; we will come up with a final joint report," he added.

At the recent event in Kuala Lumpur, Ambassador Malaya said 38 Filipinos were now facing charges in the Philippines for alleged involvement in the incident. Asked about Kiram being charged, he said, "I don't have the final word".

Thirty-one people have been charged in Malaysia, including at least 24 Filipinos, for suspected involvement in the Sabah incursion, according to media reports.

Hope for the future

Regular Filipinos were somewhat less optimistic than their ambassador in comments about the incident.

"The case of Sabah will take longer to overcome as the Philippines government is still finding out the validity of the claim. The government wants to keep a good relationship with its important neighbour, Malaysia. However, at the same time, they have to respond to claims made by the Sulu Sultan," said Eric Rizaldo, a Filipino graduate student in Jakarta.

"I think all Malaysians and Filipinos agree that conflict in Sabah is terrifying, but all parties hope the situation will improve. There are 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah," said Mahatir Rahmadi, a resident of Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah.

Some Indonesian migrant workers who fled during the violence are slowly returning.

Harso Galih, a migrant worker originally from Gresik, East Java, hopes to return by the end of June. Asked if he is concerned about security, Harso said his need for work surpasses his worries.

"I was scared. I live not too far from the conflict zone, on the outskirts of Sempoerna City. I saw thousands of people flee. It looked like an exodus. However, I hope the situation is different when I return. I've heard from several colleagues who returned in April, saying that security in Sabah has improved," he told Khabar.

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