Philippines-Malaysia relations

Philippines to step up Sabah claim by reviving North Borneo Bureau

Sofia Tomacruz
Philippines to step up Sabah claim by reviving North Borneo Bureau

PARADISE. Sabah is a natural gem occupied by Malaysia but claimed by the Philippines.

Photo from Shutterstock

'The rest of the world has forgotten our Sabah claim, casually designating it as another country’s territory when we have not forgotten it,' says Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr

The Philippine Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) announced it will once again reactivate its North Borneo Bureau, marking a concrete step in the country’s efforts to tackle its touchy Sabah claim. 

Foreign Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr gave the update during the DFA’s budget hearing at the House of Representatives on Tuesday, September 15, saying the country’s “honor is involved here.”

“While we fiercely guard our waters, we are not forgetting our terrestrial domain. In pursuit of securing what is ours, I have decided to reactivate the North Borneo Bureau after realizing that the rest of the world has forgotten our Sabah claim, casually designating it as another country’s territory when we have not forgotten it,” Locsin said. 

The foreign affairs chief added the Philippines’ claim to Sabah was one of several international disagreements “we can afford to conduct in our best interest without any risk of loss of any kind for our country.”

Sabah, known for its resource-rich lands, is a territory occupied by Malaysia but claimed by the Philippines as part of Mindanao. 

Why does this matter?

Locsin’s announcement further steps up the Philippines’ Sabah claim after it had mostly been contained to exchanges of statements from diplomats and politicians in the two countries. 

Although the Philippines has never relinquished its claim of sovereignty over Sabah, it has for the most part kept that claim dormant to maintain harmonious ties with Malaysia.

This may no longer be the case, Locsin said, as he told lawmakers “we will address this with the utmost vigor.”

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Locsin turned up the notch further when asked about “stateless persons” supposedly sent to the country by Malaysia through its porous borders with the southern Philippines. Locsin said that though the Philippines must proceed “carefully,” he did not view people coming in as “stateless.”

“They must be Filipino because Sabah is ours! That’s all there is to it. If Malaysia doesn’t like it, that’s too goddamned bad for them. This question of ASEAN amity – that won’t get in the way of my assertion of what is ours,” he said. 

With a revived North Borneo bureau, Locsin said the Philippines will “make sure no one is allowed to question that claim without a challenge from us.”

Sleeping giant

The Sabah issue recently featured in headlines in late July, after a tweet from the US embassy saying America donated hygiene kits to Filipinos from “Sabah, Malaysia” triggered a firestorm of tweets from Locsin. Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein had tweeted in response, and the two countries eventually summoned one another’s diplomats

“That was it. I blew my top and I told the embassy take it down…. Because that has been happening to us – that claim has always been there. We should never have allowed it to go dormant,” Locsin said on Tuesday. 

While the Philippines is leaning towards reviving the claim, analysts earlier said silence on the issue when possible is “pragmatic.” After all, Malaysia is 1 of the 5 countries with the most Filipinos overseas, a leading source of tourists, and a close partner in fighting piracy and terrorism. – Rappler.com

Sofia Tomacruz

Sofia Tomacruz covers foreign affairs and is the lead reporter on the coronavirus pandemic. She also writes stories on the treatment of women and children. Follow her on Twitter via @sofiatomacruz. Email her at sofia.tomacruz@rappler.com.