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INITIATIVE: Philippine leaders have, since Marcos, taken the effort to resolve the sovereignty issue, writes Dr Paridah Abd Samad
THEN Philippine president Ferdinand Marcos made a dramatic move towards normalisation of bilateral relations in 1976, just prior to an Asean summit meeting, when he stated that the Philippines no longer intended to press its claim to sovereignty over Sabah, though he did not officially drop it. The pronouncement, however, was never followed by any concrete action.
The dispute dragged on into the Corazon Aquino administration, which tried to resolve the problem through revising legal and constitutional provisions to drop the claim. The Philippine Constitution of 1987 no longer includes the phrase "by historical and legal rights" as part of the definition of the national territory. Also, Senate Bill No. 206, redefining the archipelagic boundaries of the Philippines, called for amendments to Republic Acts 5546, and it particularly excluded Sabah from Philippine territory.
However, Sultan Jamalul Kiram III's denouncement of Aquino's government for endorsing the bill without consulting him and bungling by the newly installed administration kept the bill from getting through the Senate, denying Aquino a diplomatic victory of the Asean summit in December, 1987.
The Philippines cannot just drop its claim to Sabah to patch up differences with Malaysia, as it must first consider the repercussions of such a decision on the politically unstable Sulu Archipelago. Sabah and Moro are interrelated in prolonging settlement of the dispute and in deepening the security concerns of the Philippine government.
The transmigration of mostly Filipino Muslim refugees to Sabah has put the Philippines in a favourable position because this has significantly contributed to reducing the Muslim population ratio and its resistance strength.
In 1970, Tunku Abdul Rahman played an important role in promoting international support for the Moro cause. As secretary-general of the Organisation of Islamic Countries (now Organisation of Islamic Cooperation), he endorsed the Moro case submitted to him in 1972 and asked King Faisal of Saudi Arabia and (Libyan) president (Muammar) Gaddafi to help in persuading other OIC member states to support it.
But Malaysia's optimism and hope for a new and brighter chapter in Malaysia-Philippines relations remain unfulfilled. While the Aquino administration made the effort and took the initiative to drop the sovereignty claim on Sabah, it was unable to push through its initiative because of stumbling blocks. Senate Bill 206, which excludes Sabah from Philippine territory, remains unenacted.
Since no law has yet been passed on the dropping of Sabah claim, the Philippine government still has the option to actively pursue the claim through internationally accepted norms. By pursuing the claim, the Philippine government could promote the Philippines' historic rights and legal title over Sabah, as well as the proprietary rights of the heirs of sultan of Sulu.
However, the 1930 treaty between the United States and Great Britain drew a precise boundary to separate their island possessions off the northeast coast of Sabah. The allocation of islands defined in these treaties was enshrined in Article 1 of the Philippine Constitution of 1935.
The Philippine claim has no known international support while Malaysia is morally supported by Great Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations in rejecting this claim. Even the US has assumed a position of neutrality. The other Asean countries, though discreetly distancing themselves form the issue since it involves two of their fellow members, also seem to silently acknowledge Malaysia's right to the disputed territory.
For the Philippines to drop its claim to Sabah without concessions would mean outright recognition of Malaysia's sovereignty over Sabah. Taking this position might also jeopardise the proprietary rights of sultan of Sulu. In general, choosing this option appears to be damaging the national integrity.
Malaysia gave a solemn commitment to satisfactorily resolve the proprietary claim with recognised Sulu heirs once the sovereignty claim is legally and finally dropped. It sees no linkage whatsoever between the two claims. Malaysia has always insisted that sovereignty and proprietary rights over Sabah are two separate questions.
The writer is a former lecturer of UiTM Shah Alam and International Islamic University Malaysia, Gombak