KOTA KINABALU: Philippine President-Elect Rodrigo Duterte, already notorious for offhand comments, has run into flak in Malaysia over a statement on Sabah, noted The Diplomat, in a report on Tuesday.
Duterte, the tough-talking Mayor of Davao City, may have started on a wrong footing with Malaysia when he stressed that the Philippines Government under him would preserve the claim on Sabah. He appeared to recognize the claim, said the report, that the Sulu sultanate –now defunct — once ruled over parts of Sabah.
Putrajaya wants Manila to focus instead on resolving the decades long rebellion in the country’s south.
The reaction by various official circles in Malaysia, in the wake of Duterte’s take on Sabah, suggested that the new Philippines President was barking up the wrong tree on the other side of the Sulu Sea.
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, recalling Malaysia’s role in peace talks in the south, urged implementation of a peace deal forged in March 2014 between Manila and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
He called for stability in the region to make the seas between Sabah and Sulu safer.
“That would benefit both Malaysia and the Philippines,” said the Malaysian Prime Minister during a keynote address on Monday in Kuala Lumpur at the Asia-Pacific Rountable gathering. “That certainly would be more productive than re-igniting the Sabah claim issue.”
Peace, he said, was an end in itself, “and if we can help bring to a close a dispute that has cost so many lives, we would be honoured to do so”.
Over the weekend, Najib vowed at the ground-breaking ceremony for a helicopter forward base in Lahad Datu, that Malaysia would “defend every inch of Sabah”.
Najib’s reference to the Sabah claim, during remarks.which lasted some 20 minutes in Kuala Lumpur, recalled an abortive attempt in 2013 by a 200-strong rag-tag bunch from Sulu to seize the Lahad Datu area in eastern Sabah.
The incident, dubbed the Lahad Datu Intrusion, left dozens of militants, civilians and security forces dead after a two-week standoff. Some of the militants are in Court, facing charges of waging war against the Agong in Malaysia.
Wisma Putra, Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry, earlier reiterated in a statement that the country did not recognise any claim by any party to parts of Sabah.
Sabah Chief Minister Musa Aman dismissed the claim as “irrelevant”.
Malaysia has already embarked on joint patrols with the Philippines, before Duterte, and Indonesia to jointly patrol the Sulu Sea and tackle security challenges.
There have been a series of cross-border kidnappings-for-ransom in the eastern Sabah region. In the latest incident, several Malaysians and Indonesians were taken hostage in the waters off Sabah.
There are plans to further strengthen the Eastern Sabah Security Command (EssCom) which covers ten districts along the eastern seaboard called the Eastern Sabah Security Zone (EssZone).