Ermita’s Sabah memo
When Gloria Arroyo’s “special envoys” to Malaysia, minus National Security Adviser Norberto Gonzales, met with Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi in Kuala Lumpur yesterday, did they also discuss Sabah?
I’m curious because last Aug. 20, two weeks after the aborted signing of the Malaysian-brokered Memorandum of Agreement on Ancestral Domain between the Philippine government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, Executive Secretary Eduardo Ermita issued Memorandum Circular 612 titled “Guidelines on Matters Pertaining to North Borneo (Sabah)”
The memo gives four instructions:
One, “No department, agency, or instrumentality of the Philippine Government shall make any act or statement expressing or implying, directly or indirectly, any recognition of a foreign state’s sovereignty over North Borneo (Sabah) or non-recognition of Philippine title of historical and legal rights to the same.”
Two, “Any official activity, act or statement relating to North Borneo (Sabah) or which may have bearing on the Philippine claim to said territory shall be carried out only with the clearance of or after consultations with the Department of Foreign Affairs.
Three, “Reference to North Borneo (Sabah) in official documents should not include its being part of a larger national/federal territory. These documents include, but are not limited to, the following: Philippine passports, agreement, agreed minutes, joint communiqués, record of discussion, and similar documents.
Four, “The Philippine government officials visiting North Borneo (Sabah) shall provide DFA with a report on their travel.”
What prompted Ermita to issue the memo? Is there some sort of a movement in the 35-year old Philippine claim on Sabah? Is the memo related to the MOA-AD fiasco?
Many were curious about the active role of Malaysia in the GRP-MILF talks and there were speculations that the Arroyo government had made a commitment to Malaysia to drop the Sabah claim in exchange for the Malaysian non-support of the MILF’s secessionist crusade.
The speculations were not exactly far fetched because when Arroyo came home from a state visit in Malaysia in August 2001, she announced that her government would be setting up an economic and cultural office in Saba to take care of the more than half- a -million Filipinos in the disputed territory.
These were her exact words: “We have more than half a million Filipinos living in Sabah. Many of them are undocumented and are subject to periodic crackdowns by immigration authorities. Sometimes they end up becoming boat people fro a few days because when they are sent out of Malaysia because they don’t have Malaysian papers, they are sent back to Zamboanga. And Zamboanga says we have no record that you are a Filipino citizen. So they’re deported back to Sabach. It’s an irritant. Not only an irritant in our relationship but a great inconvenience and suffering for those individuals themselves. It is time to put up an office to protect them.
“I am asking Vice president Guingona, who is also our secretary of foreign affairs to set up an economic and cultural office in Sabah similar to the one that we have in Taipei in order to protect our Filipino workers in Sabah.”
A MECO-like center is a consulate in disguise. Arroyo fooled no one there. (The reason why it’s called MECO in Taipei because the Philippines has adopted a One-China policy which treats Taiwan as a province.)
Foreign Affairs officials said the establishment of a consulate/cultural and economic center in Kota Kinabalu in Sabah was strongly suggested by then Prime Minister Mohammad Mahathir to Arroyo in their bilateral talks where they also discussed Malaysia’s cooperation in convincing the MILF to the peace talks.
Malaysia would like a Philippine consulate in Sabah because that would have the effect of dropping the Philippine claim on the resources-rich territory. It’s common sense: a state does not establish a consulate in its own territory.
If the Malaysians thought Arroyo, with her shaky hold on power, is easier to handle compared to her predecessors, they underestimated her shrewdness. After her announcement of a “MECO-like office in Sabah” nothing was heard about it. Never was a budget allocated for it.
The explanation was, Arroyo’s legal advisers warned her that she could be impeached for giving away Sabah to Malaysians.
I surmise the Ermita memo has more to do with the archipelagic baseline bill being deliberated in the Senate rather than the MOA-AD fiasco.
Very soon, Congress will be passing a law delineating the Philippine archipelagic baseline, which would be the basis of our claim for extended continental shelf to be submitted to the United Nations under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea not later than May 13, 2009. Sabah is not included in any of the six bills delineating the country’s baseline which basically is a line connecting the basepoints that define, in longitude and latitude, the archipelagic boundaries.
But non-inclusion in the country’s baseline does not mean dropping the Philippine claim on Sabah because it will be reiterated in the new law that it does not prejudice the country’s claim to Sabah. As Henry Bensurto, head of the Commission on Maritime and Ocean Affairs (CMOA) Secretariat, “the baseline is not a mode of acquiring ownership.The same way, it is not a mode of losing ownership as well.”
I’d like to think that Ermita’s memo is merely an anticipatory move to prevent suspicions that Arroyo has once again given away Sabah to the Malaysians like she did with the Spratlys to the Chinese , the Tokyo property to a Japanese business group, and parts of Mindanao to the MILF.
Given Arroyo’s minus 38 credibility, people will believe the worst of her.