President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak also discuss the possibility of a Philippine consular office in Sabah, a territory being claimed by the Philippines, though the claim itself is not taken up during their meeting
MANILA – The wheels of government machinery often take a long time before its gets well-greased and move speedily, but finally, some good news for Malaysians in Sabah – that is if reports are to be believed.
Often viewed as the mother of all problems in Sabah due to the presence of hundreds of thousands of Filipino migrants, an agreement has finally been reached – so it seems – on the gradual repatriation of Filipinos in the State.
The two governments forged the agreement during the bilateral meeting of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in Putrajaya on Thursday (Nov 10).
A popular but critical Philippines online news portal, Rappler.com, quoted Najib as saying: “We have agreed that these Philippines immigrants will be sent back to their home in stages.”
The issue of undocumented Filipino migrants in Sabah has long been a thorn in bilateral ties between the two countries. Malaysian authorities have reportedly abused Filipino migrants during massive crackdowns on their villages and mass deportations.
There are at least 800,000 Filipinos in Sabah, according to 2013 Philippine government estimates. However, these numbers could have exceeded the millions mark as illegals ‘walk’ in and out of Sabah via the southern islands, as and when they please.
PHILIPPINES CONSULAR OFFICE IN SABAH
Najib was also quoted as saying they had discussed the possibility of setting up a Philippine consular office in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, a territory that is being claimed by the Philippines.
The Rappler.com also reported that the Philippines’ claim over Sabah itself, however, was not discussed during the meeting, quoting Philippine Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr.
“We both agreed that we will set the Sabah issue aside and not even talk about it for now,” said Yasay in an interview with reporters after the Najib-Duterte meeting.
Though Sabah (part of the Borneo island) is recognized internationally as belonging to the Malaysian Federation, the Philippines has a historic claim to it based on the ownership of the North Borneo area by the Sultan of Sulu who ceded his sovereignty over the territory to the Philippine government in the 1960s.
Previous administrations had taken different approaches on the issue and in dealing with the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu.
There were renewed tensions over the Sabah issue when a group that called itself the Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo arrived in Lahad, Sabah in February 2013, sparking a standoff with Malaysian forces.
The group operated on instructions of Jamalul Kiram III, a claimant to the throne of the Sultanate of Sulu, to assert the Philippines’ territorial claim. Then President Benigno Aquino III had said that the strategy was not the way to assert the Philippines’ claim on Sabah.
The standoff, which lasted for about a month, led to 60 deaths – 52 Filipinos and 8 Malaysian policemen – and forced over 6,000 Filipinos to flee Sabah at the time.
Kiram III died in October 2013, while the leader of the standoff, Agbimuddin Kiram, died in January 2015.
During the bilateral meeting, Duterte also agreed to allow Malaysian authorities in pursuit of kidnappers to enter Philippine waters.