BONGAO, Tawi-Tawi – The Malaysian government has started to impose a trade embargo on Muslim Filipino traders from southern Philippines as part of their efforts to force fighters of Sultan Jamalul Kiram to leave Kampung Tanduo in Felda Sahabat 17 in Sabah, where they have been holed up since Feb. 9.
Gov. Sadikul Sahali said the embargo that the Sabah government is imposing on Muslim traders from Southern Philippines would greatly affect his constituents here.
Sahali said many residents in the province depend on Malay food products and other prime commodities particularly rice for their basic needs.
Local traders and stores sell Malaysian rice at ₱470 per 25-kilo sack of rice while Philippine-produced rice with the same variety sells for ₱1,100 to ₱1,200 per sack of 25 kilos.
Many people here are expected to suffer economically as a result of the trade embargo, a trader in this capital town said.
"I have to admit that our people here are using and consuming Malaysian products. This is because of our nearness to the federal state of Malaysia and the prices of their foodstuffs are lower compared to the products sold in the country," an elderly resident here said.
Likewise he said, many residents of Sulu go to Sabah to seek greener pastures. Job opportunities in that state are unlimited unlike in the province or even the entire Philippines, he added.
Sahali said if Sabah continues to impose a ban on trading with them, he will simply ask traders here to get their rice and other food supplies in Zamboanga City.
"Never mind the price. What is important is that we will be able to have rice for the consumption of the people here," he said.
Meanwhile, the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo led by Sultan Jamalul Kiram III intensified yesterday its reaching out to the world community, this time to the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).
Abraham J. Idjirani, officially appointed by Kiram III as the royal spokesperson of the sultanate, said yesterday the Sultan wrote a letter of appeal to the ICRC on Saturday.
He said Philippine Red Cross (PRC) Chairman Richard "Dick" Gordon has agreed to forward the Sultan's letter to the ICRC.
"The letter of the Sultan was given Sunday morning" to Gordon, Idjirani said.
As this developed, Idjirani said in an interview yesterday the stand of the Sultan is still the same: no pulling out from Lahad Datu, Sabah.
"Unless there is a dialogue with Malaysia, there are no plans to return to the Philippines," he said.
Kiram III has also sent words to his people in Lahad Datu to "remain cool" and avoid provocations.
Idjirani said Kiram III appealed for help from the ICRC in the wake of information from Rajah Muda Agbimuddin Kiram, the crown prince, who, along with over 200 of the sultanate's men, are still encamped since Feb. 12 in Kampung Tanduao, Lahad Datu.
Idjirani said at least two of the rajah muda's men have fallen ill.
"It is nothing serious as of the moment," he said, "but it is important the overall health or condition of the crown prince's people is known through the ICRC," said Idjirani.
The food embargo being imposed by the Malaysian government which started on Wednesday, he said, is still in effect.
So, it is not remote, he said, that some of the Moros who belong to the sultan's followers still holed up in Lahad Datu will get sick.
Earlier, Idjirani appealed to the Malaysian authorities to lift the food blockade, especially since forcing people to go hungry violates the tenets of Islam, which both Malaysians and Muslim Filipinos equally respect and observe.
On the other hand, the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) led by founding Chairman Nur Misuari also appealed to the UN to send its peacekeeping force to Sabah to prevent any violence from breaking out.
Over 2,000 MNLF leaders and commanders made the appeal through a resolution issued on Feb. 21 during the "MNLF Leadership Meeting" that Misuari convened in Zamboanga City.
In a separate interview, the MNLF chieftain appealed to the Malaysian prime minister to solve the current crisis "in a fraternal way" to prevent bloodshed.
At the same time, Misuari warned that the MNLF will help the rajah muda's men even if only a drop their blood is spilled.
Over in Malaysia, the Home Ministry deferred to the Wisma Putra (Ministry of Foreign Affairs) in making a decision on the Philippine request for an extension of the deadline on the stay of the Filipinos in the Sabah standoff.
In an article on the New Straits Times online edition dated Feb. 24, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein objected to an extension that is "too long" should there be one.
"What is important is that we will not compromise on the country's safety and the dignity of the people in resolving the matter peacefully," he said.
He said Foreign Minister Datuk Seri Hanifah Aman had called him on the phone. Malaysia described the sultan's men as "intruders."
On the other hand, Kiram III said he sent his younger brother (Agbimuddin) and their followers on a journey home to Sabah to establish their ancestral rights on the island.
Malaysia's deadline for the Filipinos to pull out peacefully has been extended a few times already.
Meanwhile, at least the Malaysian government has acknowledged that the sultan's descendants involved in the crisis are not members of Abu Sayyaf.
"The people should understand that the situation there is rather complex and view it in perspective as it differs from other cases involving al-Maunah, Abu Sayyaf and Jemaah Islamiah. The intruders in Lahad Datu are not militants or terrorists," said the home minister.
Meanwhile, Deputy Presidential Spokeswoman Abigail Valte said the Philippine government is focused on efforts to peacefully resolve the conflict involving a group of armed Filipinos holed up in Sabah rather than proposals to revive the claim over the ancestral land.
She said the matter of pursuing the Sabah claim will be tackled "at the proper time" without harming the country's relations with Malaysia.
She said a government team is now looking into the "historical and legal context" of the country's claim over Sabah. (With a report from Genalyn D. Kabiling) (http://bit.ly/WcMkmo)