ASEAN will stay out of Sabah dispute

MANILA, Philippines - The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will not intervene in the Sabah dispute as it is seen as a bilateral issue, a former head of the regional bloc said on Tuesday, March 19.

"Most of ASEAN considers this is a bilateral issue between the Philippines and Malaysia," noted Rodolfo Severino, former ASEAN Secretary-General (1998-2002) and current Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore.

Severino explained that the regional bloc does not have a general policy of mediating in bilateral disputes and "settled" the issue when Malaysia joined ASEAN in 1963 with Sabah as part of its recognized territory.

"What happened recently is probably what I consider the impatience of certain groups for the resolution of this case," he said.

Severino, also a former ambassador to Malaysia, explained that the Sabah "problem" goes back not only to 1963 -- when ASEAN was formed -- but even to 1936, when Jamalul Kiram II, the last Sulu Sultan officially recognized by Manila, died without a male heir and opened up the question of his succession. (Read: Sabah as the last gold coin)

The expert said that "the problem is there are 2 separate claims: one is the sovereignty claim [to be pursued by the Philippine government] and the other is the proprietary claim [raised by self-proclaimed Sulu Sultan Jamalul Kiram III]."

"One must distinguish between [them]," Severino concluded.

Kiram has asked for both ASEAN and the United Nations to intervene in the conflict, even to send peacekeepers, but so far his requests have been rejected by both governments. -