Filipinos leaving Sabah during the coronavirus pandemic should not be called repatriates, Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said Saturday.
“When this COVID-19 was starting and Zamboanga was getting quite a lot of infections from Filipinos leaving Sabah to go to Zamboanga, I told the ambassador, ‘Don’t you dare call them repatriates,’” he said, referring apparently to the Malaysian envoy to the Philippines.
“You just say you’re moving Filipinos from one place to the other. Don’t you dare call them that and he has not.”
In a virtual interview on “Usapang Community Quarantine” by former diplomatic beat reporter Malou Talosig-Bartolome, Locsin said the virus crisis should not be politicized amid a long-standing dispute over Sabah, a territory east of Malaysia’s northern Borneo and southwest of the Philippines’ Sulu.
Authorities earlier said some 5,300 Filipinos were expected to return to the Philippines from Sabah.
Locsin said those facilitating the transfer of Filipinos from Sabah were the United Nations Development Program and International Organization for Migration.
“They [UNDP/IOM] never say anything. They are moving human beings from one place to another and let’s keep it that way,” he said.
“Let’s not use the misery of people regardless of nationality as an excuse to assert something that might piss me off.”
Last Monday, Locsin called out the United States Embassy in the Philippines for calling Sabah as part of Malaysia.
“Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines,” Locsin said in a tweet.
Locsin was reacting to a tweet of the US Embassy on USAID’s donation of hygiene kits “for Filipino repatriates who returned from Sabah and who arrived in Zamboanga City and Bongao, Tawi Tawi.”
Locsin’s tweet triggered a reaction from the Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein, who said the Philippine ambassador to Kuala Lumpur on Monday would be summoned to explain.
Locsin said he would also summon Malaysia’s ambassador here.
Hishammuddin criticized Locsin’s statement as “irresponsible,” threatening it could affect bilateral ties of both nations. He also maintained that “Sabah is, and will always be, part of Malaysia.”
But Locsin said the Philippines would continue to assert its rights in Sabah, as well as in the West Philippine Sea and that the Philippines would never abandon its claim.