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Secret effort to end Sabah conflict bared

The sultanate of Sulu on Friday announced that an unidentified neutral country has agreed to act as a go-between to help convince the Malaysian government to end the conflict in Sabah, which has already taken at least 63 lives. “A secret diplomatic effort has already been made with neutral a nation and that is now compelling the Malaysian government to take heed,” said Abraham Idjirani, a spokesman for the sultanate. Idjirani said the neutral country has already “invited the attention” of the Malaysian government for a possible cessation of hostilities in Sabah. Sultan Jamalul Kiram III, who sent a 200-member contingent to the town of Lahad Datu last month to reassert the sultanate’s claim on Sabah, declared a unilateral ceasefire last week, but Malaysia has continued to launch attacks against the Filipinos led by the sultan’s brother, Agbimuddin. In the Palace, a presidential spokesperson said President Benigno Aquino III and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak have spoken with each other for the second time in a bid to resolve the month-long crisis in Sabah. “The lines of communication between the two leaders are open,” deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said. “We continue to reiterate our request for consular assistance to those in custody of Malaysian authorities.” She did not offer any other details, however, of the leaders’ discussions. A senatorial candidate of the administration ticket, Ramon Magsaysay Jr. had earlier urged the government to keep a hotline open to Najib to make sure that policy statements are not lost in translation. The two leaders “must be able to talk to each other whenever they see the need” as the conflict has already claimed the lives of more than 60 people, most of whom are supporters of the sultan, he said. “We appeal to all to take the side of public welfare and keep our citizens out of harm’s way,” Magsaysay said. But opposition lawmakers on Friday demanded that President Aquino drop Malaysia as a facilitator in peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, citing its lack of neutrality, now that it was in conflict with the sultanate. “The Malaysian government has Filipino blood now on its hands so how can it be independent and objective as a third party? Our Muslim brothers are being killed there,” said House Deputy Minority Leader Ferdinand Martin Romualdez. Romualdez also cautioned the government against completely antagonizing the rest of the Muslim people if it continued to allow Kuala Lumpur to host the negotiations with the MILF. Romualdez said the Sabah claim should be settled by arbitration. As hundreds of Filipinos fled Sabah to avoid getting caught in the crossfire between Kiram’s supporters and Malaysian forces, Malacañang said it was holding on to Najib’s promise to protect the 800,000 Filipinos living and working in the island state. Najib made the promise to Mr. Aquino when they first spoke over the phone on March 2 after Malaysia launched a military action to end the sultan’s occupation of Lahad Datu. The Blas F. Ople Policy Center on Friday issued a call to protect Filipinos in Sabah, urging the International Labor Organization to monitor abuses being committed against Filipinos in the eastern Malaysian territory. “We wish to appeal to ILO to work with member states—Malaysia and the Philippines—in ensuring that the rights and welfare of migrant workers in conflict-afflicted communities in Sabah are upheld at all times,” policy center head Susan Ople said. Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago on Friday recommended the appointment of a third party to conduct under international law an inquiry into the recent violence between Filipinos and Malaysian security forces in Sabah. She said she was willing to file a resolution urging the President to invite Malaysia to agree to a third-party inquiry and fact-finding mission when Congress resumes sessions in July. At the same time, however, Santiago said it was urgent for Mr. Aquino to implement the principle of diplomatic protection over Filipino nationals. “International law prohibits the use of force. But there is an unwritten exception which allows states to protect or rescue their nationals by means of armed forces in the territory of another state. However, this exception should not be invoked, unless the Philippines has to carry out rescue operations,” Santiago said. The senator said that before the Philippines can undertake rescue operations in Sabah, the government should observe the following conditions: The life of Filipino nationals should be genuinely in danger, Malaysia is unwilling or unable to ensure the safety of the persons concerned, the Philippines does not pursue any other purpose at the occasion of the operation and the scale and effects of the military force used are adequately measured to the purpose and conditions of the operation. Santiago maintained that the sultanate’s claim on Sabah was supported by a 1878 deed that leased the territory to the British North Borneo Company, which later transferred sovereignty to the British crown and then to Malaysia. “Since no transfer of sovereignty was involved in the 1878 Deed, no transfer of sovereignty has ever passed to Malaysia,” she said. Also on Friday, Amina Rasul of the Philippine Center for Islam and Democracy warned that terrorist groups such as the Abu Sayyaf and Al-Qaida could take advantage of the conflict in Sabah to spread terrorism. “The condition there is conducive to terrorists’ attacks,” she said, adding that the Sabah conflict will only result in ong-term damage to other Asian nations, she cited. With  Joyce Pañares, Christine F. Herrera Macon Ramos-Araneta and Rio N. Araja
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