By Arjay L. Balinbin Reporter
MALAYSIAN PRIME Minister Mahathir Mohammad, who was in Manila on an official visit on Thursday, March 7, vowed the Malaysian government will help in the development of Mindanao, noting the area’s economic potential following the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
In a joint press statement that he delivered at the Palace on Thursday afternoon together with his Philippine President Rodrigo R. Duterte, Mr. Mahathir said, “We discussed a wide range of issues on bilateral relations between Malaysia and the Philippines as well as regional and international issues of mutual concern.”
“Given the vast economic potential of this area, I believe with the establishment of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao or BARMM, we have to boost economic ties between both countries. I therefore assured Mr. President of Malaysia’s desire to continue to be of help in the development of Mindanao.”
On trade relations, Mr. Mahathir said he and Mr. Duterte agreed to “encourage private sectors from both countries to explore opportunities of collaboration and venture in new cooperation and investments.”
“One of the main priority areas where cooperation could be exerted is…to enhance connectivity which is vital to promoting economic development,” he said further.
For his part, Mr. Duterte said: “We resolved to ramp up cooperation to address security issues, particularly on terrorism, piracy and transnational crimes, including the fight against the illegal drug trade.”
Also on Thursday, Malacañang insisted that the Philippines has a claim to the territory of Sabah (North Borneo).
This is in response to Mr. Mahathir’s remarks in an interview with ANC that the Philippines has no claim over the territory. “Well, as far as we’re concerned, there is no claim,” he said.
He also said the matter would not be tackled during his bilateral meeting with Mr. Duterte. “We will not discuss that,” he said.
Sought for comment during a Palace briefing, Presidential Spokesperson Salvador S. Panelo said: “That’s the position of Malaysia.”
“The position of the President,…meron tayong claim (we have a claim). Totoo namang may claim tayo, diba (It is true that we have a claim [to Sabah], right)? That has been the bone of contention ever since….” Mr. Panelo said.
Asked if the issue was part of the agenda of the two leaders’ meeting at the Palace, Mr. Panelo said: “It’s not on the agenda as far as I know.”
Mr. Duterte, before he assumed office in June 2016, vowed that he would pursue the country’s claim to Sabah. However, he has been keeping mum on the matter.
A report by the late journalist and lawyer Napoleon G. Rama of the Philippines Free Press on Dec. 30, 1961, prompted the Philippine government back then, under the administration of President Diosdado P. Macapagal, to pursue the country’s Sabah claim.
The report went back in history to recount the Sultanate of Brunei’s ceding Borneo to the Sultanate of Sulu in 1850 following the latter’s assistance in quelling a rebellion in Brunei.
Mr. Rama also said that in 1878, the “Sultan of Sulu entered into an agreement with Alfred Dent and Baron von Overbeck, two adventurers who pioneered in colonizing and carpet-bagging in the southern island. The British say the agreement ceded North Borneo in perpetuity. The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu say it was merely a lease contract calling for a yearly rental of $5,000.”
“The British copy of the contract in question holds that North Borneo was ‘ceded in perpetuity.’ The heirs of the Sultan of Sulu swear that there was no such giveaway condition in the original contract. The British copy, they say, was a spurious document — a forgery,” the report said.
The Philippines’ claim over Sabah became a contentious issue as late as 2013 when heirs of the Sulu Sultanate led a standoff in the territory.