BY CLARA CHOOI
ASSISTANT NEWS EDITOR
KUALA LUMPUR, March 11 — Philippine President Benigno Aquino III should stop “lawyering” for Malaysia or threatening legal action against the Sulu invaders in Sabah, local daily Manila Standard Today (MST) said in a special memo to the republic’s chief executive today.
The broadsheet told the president that it was because of his administration’s alleged failure in diplomacy that more and more Filipinops are allegedly facing persecution in Sabah as Malaysian authorities widen its dragnet to stop the Sulu invasion.
“Stop lawyering for the Malaysians. They may be your friends but they are guided by their own national interests, as we should be,” the daily said in the memo.
“The last thing that your countrymen wish to hear out of your mouth is a defence of the Malaysian attacks.”
The Aquino administration has come under heavy fire in the Philippines for taking a step back as Malaysia launched its all-out assault “Ops Daulat” last Tuesday to flush out the group of Sulu rebels who landed in Sabah a month ago to lay claim over the state.
Bombs and heavy artillery fire were rained down by Malaysian fighter jets over areas where the rebels were believe to be hiding in Sabah, nearly obliterating the small coastal village of Kampung Tanduo.
Ground troops were sent in after and mopping up operations began, resulting in small skirmishes that saw more Sulu gunmen falling from Malaysian fire over the week. As of yesterday, the death toll stood at 62 — 53 Sulu militants, eight Malaysian policemen and an unidentified teenager.
The Kiram family then called for ceasefire but this was immediately rejected by Malaysia who insisted that every single one of their rebels are either killed or arrested to face the full force of the law.
Aquino has also ordered a probe into the suspicion that the rebels, led by the Sulu Sultanate, are being guided by larger political powers aiming to topple his leadership in the coming mid-term polls in the Philippines.
The government has already begun the investigation, with the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) issuing a subpeona on Pastor “Boy” Saycon, an adviser to the self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III. Saycon will appear before the NBI for questioning tomorrow.
The Aquino administration has also announced that the Kiram family may be charged with “inciting war or giving motives for reprisals” under Article 118 of the country’s Revised Penal code, apart from the “illegal possession of firearms, violations of the election gun ban and illegal assembly”, among others.
After facing charges in the Philippines, the Sultan and his men may be hauled to Malaysia for more punishment, Justice Secretary Leila de Lima reportedly said last week, once the Philippine Department of Justice (DOJ) studies laws here and in the Philippines on the possibility of extradition.
Citing these moves, MST said the Philippine government has only worsening an already deepening crisis that has now turned into an all-out guerrila war in Lahad Datu.
The local daily told Aquino not to pour more fuel into the fire, “unless it is a conflagration you wish to create”.
“With hindsight, it was probably not the wisest thing to ask the sultan’s followers to return to the Philippines and then threaten them in the same breath with arrest and prosecution,” the paper told the president in the memo.
In the early days of negotiation, Aquino had urged the Sultan to call his men back to the Philippines, promising to look into the Sultanate’s claim over Sabah in peaceful manner.
“Your attack dogs in the Justice Department (DOJ) have continued in this vein, announcing to the world that they are ‘building an airtight case’ against the sultan, rendering any appeals to stand down ineffectual and ultimately meaningless.
“And for goodness sake, with at least 10 Filipinos dead at the hands of a foreign power, do not refer to the conflict as ‘a propaganda war’,” MST added.
The paper added that Aquino’s hardline stance against the Sulu invaders may have scored the him some brownie points for appearing tough and resolute but to his detractors, the president had left zero room for manoeuvre.
It pointed out that Aquino had refused to meet with the Sultan unless the latter agreed to pull his men from Sabah.
“We are not schoolchildren trying to show who can shoot higher on the schoolyard wall. Let us stop behaving as if we were,” MST said.
It concluded the memo by urging Aquino to deliver on his promise of openness to receiving advice, saying, “we... do hope you will heed it from time to time.”
The armed incursion into Sabah by the Sulu rebels enters its 30th day today.