MANILA, Philippines - In his first visit to the Philippines under the administration of President Benigno Aquino III, the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah lauded the government's efforts to achieve peace in Mindanao but steered clear of the Sabah issue.
"Since my last visit here 5 years ago, I am much impressed by the progress and development which has taken place in the Philippines. I am happy to reaffirm the long-standing friendship and cooperation that exist between our two countries," he said.
The visit comes two months after the Sultanate of Sulu sent armed followers to Sabah to renew its claim to the Malaysian state. Bolkiah chose not to mention the issue.
Sabah used to be part of the Sultanate of Brunei until it ceded the territory to the Sultanate of Sulu as a reward for helping Brunei win a civil war in the 17th century.
Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda earlier said Sabah was not part of Bolkiah and Aquino's agenda.
ASEAN and maritime disputes
Bolkiah's visit also comes a week before the April 24-25 ASEAN Summit in the Brunei capital Bandar Seri Begawan. Brunei is the current chair of the ASEAN.
Manila is expected to make another push at the Summit for the creation of the Code of Conduct for the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) to resolve the maritime dispute through legal means. Aquino assured Bolkiah of Manila's commitment to enhance cooperation with Southeast Asian nations "not only through economic and cultural engagements" but also through "dialogues for maritime security."
"This is our pledge: to continue working with our neighbors in implementing the commitments of ASEAN member states in the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, and in moving forward with negotiations for the adoption of a Code of Conduct," Aquino said.
"I am confident that, as your country takes on the mantle of chairmanship in ASEAN, the region will move further along the straight path towards harmony and sustainable progress," Aquino added.
Aquino's ties with Brunei
At the state luncheon in Malacañang, Aquino recalled the time when he accompanied his mother, then president Corazon Aquino, to a state visit in Brunei in 1988. He highlighted the long-standing relationship of Brunei and the Philippines and thanked the Sultan for the "kindness" that Brunei showed his mother and the 21,000 Filipinos living and working in Brunei today.
"It was an important time for both our nations: Brunei was a young, independent state that was on the rise after decades of foreign rule, while our country was just getting back on its feet after many years of oppression and tyranny. Then, our two nations reaffirmed the principles, which for centuries, have bound us as friends. Our relationship has always been rooted upon a deep historical affinity, cultivated by a common heritage and a shared vision of peace and progress for our region," he added.
Bolkiah said Brunei is "happy to be hosting more than 20,000 of your citizens who are making important contribution to our development."
Aquino has visited Brunei twice. He made a state visit in June 2011. His second visit was to attend the royal wedding of the Sultan's daughter, Hajah Hafizah Sururul Bolkiah.
Bolkiah arrived in the country on Monday afternoon, April 15, on board a plane which he piloted himself. He was scheduled to leave Tuesday afteroon, April 16. - Rappler.com