MANILA (4-Mar-2013/PNA) – The Philippine government has sent a humanitarian and consular mission to Lahad Datu, where Malaysian authorities and dozens of Filipino followers of a royal Muslim clan pressing claim to Malaysian-controlled Sabah are still locked in a tense standoff that have yielded casualties from both sides.
The Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said the team’s mission is to provide assistance to Filipinos affected by the violence that has killed at least 21 Filipinos and Malaysian police since the fighting erupted last March 1.
At least 180 Filipino supporters of Sultan Jamalul Kiram III have been holed up in Sabah, surrounded by massive Malaysian forces, since landing by boat from southern Mindanao on Feb. 12 to fortify the Sultanate of Sulu’s claim to the territory located in Borneo Island, sparking a diplomatic crisis between the Philippines and Malaysia.
The Filipinos refused to leave until the Malaysian government heeds their demand to re-open talks on unresolved claim of the sultanate on Sabah.
Kiram III, 74, said he is the heir to the Islamic sultanate of Sulu, which once controlled Sabah and islands in Southern Philippines.
Over the years, the sultanate’s power has diminished but it has continued to receive nominal payment from the Malaysian government under a historical lease arrangement between Kiram’s forebears and the British North Borneo company.
Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Jose Brillantes and Philippine Ambassador to Malaysia Eduardo Malaya informed Royal Malaysian Police Inspector General Tan Sri Ismail Omar Sunday morning that it is deploying the team in Lahad Datu.
“We would like to see how we could work with local authorities in further assisting our nationals affected by the situation,” Brillantes said in a statement from Lahad Datu.
For his part, Malaya said: “We would also like to extend consular assistance to the wounded and other affected nationals, and have access to them once practicable.”
Brillantes, former Philippine envoy to Malaysia, was dispatched to Malaysia on Feb. 25 to assist the government in handling the situation.
Philippine Embassy officials who are in Lahad Datu as part of the consular team include Consul General Medardo Macaraig, Police Attaché Charlo Collado, Assistance to Nationals officer Mustapha Lucman and Ariel Esparto, Attaché Joy Calip and Police Administrative Assistant Pastor Reano.
Malaysia claimed the encounter was triggered when the Filipinos, whom they regard as intruders, fired at Malaysian forces last Friday.
The Philippine Embassy in Kuala Lumpur called on members of the Filipino-Malaysian community in the eastern coast of Sabah to “remain calm and abide by the guidelines issued by local authorities.”
“We feel and understand the anxieties felt by many of you at these difficult times. The Embassy will work with concerned authorities to ensure your safety and well-being. This is not the time to undertake any action that might be misunderstood by some parties,” an embassy statement said.
Every year, hundreds of Filipino-Muslims enter Sabah through Mindanao in search of a better life. Most of the undocumented Filipinos in Sabah hail from Basilan, Sulu, Tawi-Tawi, and other far-flung provinces in the south that are among the Philippines’ poorest and constantly plagued by armed violence. (PNA)