By Tessa Jamandre, VERA Files
President Benigno Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak are set to meet in Kuala Lumpur on Feb. 27, when Aquino visits Malaysia in his first foreign trip for 2014, a highly reliable foreign affairs source said.
Missing from the agenda, however, will be the setting up of a consulate in Sabah, a matter which Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman had asked his Philippine counterparts to include.
Anifah conveyed the request personally to Foreign Secretary Alberto del Rosario when he came to Manila on January 31 on a day trip that was kept from the media.
The source said Anifah reiterated to Del Rosario Malaysia’s proposal “for a PH consulate in Kota Kinabalu and not in Sarawak” to take care of the consular needs of some 1.4 million mostly undocumented Filipinos in Sabah. Kota Kinabalu is the capital of Sabah.
The Philippine government, on the other hand, has a standing request for the establishment of a consulate in Sarawak, 513 kilometers from Kota Kinabalu. In the current set up, the Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur serves Filipinos in Sabah.
The matter, however, was apparently dropped from the list of issues to be taken up by Aquino and Najib. “The Sabah issue will not be discussed during the visit,” the source told VERA Files.
Having a consulate in Sabah is tantamount to the Philippines dropping its claim on the territory, legal experts say, an act that is unconstitutional and, if coming from the president, impeachable.
Aquino’s meeting with Najib comes a month after the conclusion of the Malaysia-brokered negotiations between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Group (MILF) on the setting up of a Bangsamoro in Mindanao.
Najib is scheduled to reciprocate Aquino’s visit to Kuala Lumpur with a visit to Manila in March to witness the signing of the GPH-MILF comprehensive peace agreement, the source said.
With the peace talks between the Philippine government and the MILF wrapped up, the remaining bilateral issues of mutual concern to the Philippines and Malaysia are the territorial disputes over Sabah as well as the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines and Malaysia have overlapping claims to the Spratly Islands, which are also being claimed by China on the basis of its so-called 9-dash line claim over territories in the West Philippine Sea. The Philippines has taken China to arbitration court over the matter.
The Philippine claim against China gets a boost if Malaysia and Vietnam interplead in the international tribunal, but both countries are mum on the issue of arbitration against China.
The Sabah issue has been a thorn on the side of Philippine-Malaysia ties. On Jan. 21, Malaysia began another crackdown on illegal migrants in Sabah, with Filipinos among the hundreds reportedly rounded up.
Just before the crackdown, Malaysia also began the trial of 27 Filipinos who took part in the siege on the seaside village of Tandao in Lahad Datu in Sabah on Feb. 12, 2013.
That siege was led by the late Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III in an attempt to reclaim what once belonged to the Sultanate of Sulu. Hundreds of Filipinos were also deported when Malaysian authorities swooped down on illegal migrants after the failed siege.
Over the years, Malaysia has intensified its campaign against illegal migrants. More than half a million Filipinos reside in Malaysia, most of them undocumented and living in Sabah, the second largest state in the Federation of Malaysia.
The Philippines has shelved the issue of Sabah for peaceful co-existence with Malaysia and while it has considered setting up a consulate there in the past, the move never inched forward.
Sabah (North Borneo) is a vast territory in the northern portion of the island of Borneo which is titled to the Sultan of Sulu but has been occupied by Malaysia since its formation as a state in 1963.
Sabah originally belonged to the Sultan of Brunei, who then gave it to Sultan of Sulu Salah ud-Din Karamat Bakhtiar in 1658 as a reward for helping quell a rebellion.
In 1878, Sulu Sultan Jamalul Alam Kiram leased North Borneo to the Hong Kong-based British North Borneo Company of Baron Gustavos von Overbeck and Alfred Dent for 5,000 Malaysian dollars a year.
In 1946, Overbeck and Dent, without permission from the Sultan, transferred the territory to the British government when the company ceased operations. In 1963, the British government, again without permission from the Sultan of Sulu, transferred Sabah to the newly formed Federation of Malaysia.
Earlier, on Sept. 11, 1962, Sultan of Sulu Mohammad Esmail Kiram ceded to the Philippine government full sovereignty, title and dominion over the territory. The Philippine government had asserted title over the mineral-rich territory which is just 20 kilometers away from Tawi-Tawi, an island province at the southwestern tip of the Philippines.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for “true.”)