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Almendras: Sabah crisis doesn’t need Cabinet meeting

The Manila Times, March 6, 2013

Here, in the US and elsewhere, the President (or the Prime Minister’s) Cabinet is not just collection of department heads or underlings,  but the “official family”, the collective, as it were, whose combined wisdom and experience the nation’s leader taps for him to arrive at the most appropriate decision on problems and crises confronting the nation.

Convening regular Cabinet meetings is a recognition by the Chief Executive that he does not have the monopoly of leadership wisdom that he needs to consult with those he appointed not only for their expertise in a particular field but because of their appreciation of national issues.  Since Cabinet members have,  or should have , their constituencies, captive audiences, or at least social networks, Cabinet meetings are also make up a mechanism for developing national consensus on  an important issue.

Except for Corazon Aquino and his son Benigno, it has been a practice for Philippine presidents – including the strongman Ferdinand Marcos – to regularly convene their Cabinets, especially to formulate a strategy to deal with a national crisis.

While the Sabah crisis has become a national crisis, one that has taken and will take the lives of many Muslim Filipinos who believe they are fighting for what is theirs and that of the country, Cabinet Secretary Rene Almendras said February 20:

“I don’t think you need to call a full Cabinet meeting. I can assure you that the President is on top of the situation. It is just that there are some things that are best handled in smaller groups so it’s not a full Cabinet issue.”

To think that some commentators are saying that Aquino should now convene, to formulate a strategy on and forge a national consensus over the Sabah crisis, the National Security Council or even the Council of State that would include Congress leaders, past presidents, and leaders of the major parties.

With Malaysian jets dropping bombs on our Muslim countrymen, the statement that  ”Aquino has been on top of the Sabah situation” is a sick, even morbid joke, or one that should be given a award as the most shameless plaudit to his boss by a groveling sycophant.  And who make up the “smaller group” that has been formulating the nation’s response to the Sabah crisis?  Aquino, Roxas, political affairs Ronald Llamas, the what’s-his-name national security adviser?

No wonder, to the shock and disgust of most commentators now, Aquino’s been seeing nothing but plots against him in this crisis that could end with 200 Muslim Filipinos slaughtered, and  with  the  integrity of our  nation shattered.

No wonder, after reaping the gains of his predecessor in establishing strong economic fundamentals and strengthening the rule of law,  Aquino’s regime is fast running out steam, and resorting to blame-throwing.

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It has been at the steepest price possible, but it undoubtedly put back in the national consciousness – and agenda, I hope — the Philippines’ claim to Sabah.

If instead of threatening them since the crisis broke out, Aquino had just expressed some sympathy with the Sultan of Sulu and his men who decided to die fighting for what they believed was their homeland in Sabah, the loss of Filipino and Malaysian lives would have been avoided.  More of the Sulu of Sultan’s men will most certainly be killed by Malaysian forces who have launched an a land an air assault against them as this article is being written March 5.
Mr. Aquino should search his soul now, and jettison his mind-set that the Sultan and his men, are at best, crazies (as one of his writers implied) and at worse, part of a conspiracy to humiliate his administration and torpedo the peace talks with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front.

Except for a few yellow commentators, there has been a snowballing consensus that Aquino and his officials bungled the crisis and in effect prepared the way for their slaughter put pushing them into a corner by threatening to arrest them when they return to Mindanao.

The contrast between Aquino’s belligerent attitude to China with regards to the Spratley issue and his timid stance to the Sabah claim is quite stark. He seems to be ignorant of the fact that our Spratley claim is mainly based on adventurer and fishing magnate Tomas Cloma’s discovery of and claim over the islands in 1956 and his ceding of his claim (allegedly by force) to the Marcos government in 1974.  In contrast, it was way back, in 1704 (1658, according to other accounts) when the Sultanate of Sulu acquired possession of Sabah, and which leased it in 1878 to a British company, which contract clearly stipulated that the lease, and especially its ownership, could not be transferred to another party.

The Philippines has never given up the claim, although since 1977, it had not taken concrete steps to pursue it by filing a case at the International Court of Justice, as many countries have with regards to their territorial disputes with others.  A 1968 law (R.A. 5466) which declared Sabah as Philippine territory though has never been repealed, even by Marcos who could have easily done so through a presidential decree.

Aquino and his officials however have made statements that in effect dismiss our Sabah claim. In his press conference February 26, Aquino said: “You are a leader of your clan, and every leader seeks the well-being of his constituents. These times require you to use your influence to prevail on our countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause.” (Emphasis mine).  It was obviously not their action – digging in for a siege in Lahad Datu in Sabah – that Aquino was describing as “hopeless”, but the the reason why they were there, their cause, which is pursue the Philippine  and Sulu Sultanate’s claim on Sabah.

Cabinet Secretary Almendras on the other used an analogy which recognizes Malaysia’s ownership of Sabah: ““The President’s statement is very clear… If this happened to you… if you had a house, and then somebody comes in to your house, armed, how would you react?” His deputy spokesperson Abigail Valte reduced it to the Sultan’s “proprietary claim”, as if Sabah were just a piece of real property the Muslims were insisting on owning.

Aquino and his officials must retract their statements, which in effect give up our claims on Sabah, as these would weaken our stance if the issue were brought to an international court. As lawyer and commentator Mel Sta. Maria put it, citing specific cases decided by the International Court of Justice: “In public international law and in matters involving international conflict, unilateral declarations of responsible state official may create binding legal effects and commitments  upon the state  of which he/she is  an officer of.”

In short, Aquino and his officials’ blah-blahs have given Malaysia ammunition for its claim on Sabah

Lawyer Sta. Maria has another important point on the crisis:

“One of the greatest international scholars  Emmerich De Vattel said  that ‘Whoever ill-treats a citizen indirectly injures the State, which must protect that citizen.” Without necessarily supporting the manner by which they are asserting their claim, the President can still support their cause. Instead of embarrassing them, the President must show concern and understanding and a readiness to run to their protection in case Malaysian authorities maltreat them. Our Muslim-countrymen and women must be extended diplomatic protection.”

If the Aquino-led state cannot protect its citizens, what is it for?

E-mail: tiglao.manilatimes@gmail.com