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Why are Top Diplomats Triggered on Twitter? Unresolved Issues

The backstory involves a sultan.
by Joel Guinto
Jul 30, 2020
Photo/s: Agence France-Presse

In a Twitter tit for tat, the foreign ministers of the Philippines and Malaysia summoned each other's ambassadors after a rare exchange on social media between two top Southeast Asian diplomats over a long-running issue -- Sabah.

Located on the northern tip of Borneo Island, Sabah is currently administered by Kuala Lumpur, subject to a dormant claim by Manila. The Twitter exchange erupted Wednesday, when Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein replied to a post by Foreign Affairs Sec. Teodoro Locsin Jr:  "This is an irresponsible statement that affects bilateral ties. @MalaysiaMFA we will summon the Philippines Ambassador on Monday to explain. Sabah is, and will always be, part of Malaysia."

Locsin's post that triggered his Malaysian counterpart was actually a reply of the Filipino diplomat to a tweet by the US Embassy in Manila. In the tweet, since deleted, the embassy said it donated supplies to residents of "Sabah, Malaysia." Locsin tweeted: "Sabah is not in Malaysia if you want to have anything to do with the Philippines."

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"No country can tell another what it can and cannot say about what the latter regards as rightfully its own. I don't insist China say only what we want to hear about the Arbitral Award. It is free to say what it wants while we say and do what needs doing. That holds for Sabah," Locsin said.

Replying to a Twitter user who described his posts as grandstanding, Locsin said: "We have and continue to assert our rights in the Spratlys/WPS. I am doing that with regard to Sabah. There have been repeated attempts to sell that claim but no Philippine president has succumbed. You're really stupid."

The Malaysian foreign minister has not replied to Locsin's posts.

Seven years before the Twitter spat, the heirs of the Sultan of Sulu, Jamalul Kiram, laid siege on Lahad Datu, a Sabah village to ressert the Philippines claim. His men were defeated. At that time in early 2013, then President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino III, told Kiram's men to stand down. 

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Aquino was relying on Malaysia, then led by Prime Minister Najib Razak, to negotiate a peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. Kiram died in late 2013 and early the following year, Manila signed a peace pact with the MILF.

Sabah's east was ruled by the Sulu Sultanate in the 17th and 18th centuries alongside parts of Mindanao, Palawan and Borneo. In 1878, the sultanate signed an agreement handing the territory to Britain's North Borneo Chartered Company. Kiram had claimed that Malaysia paid him a lease for Sabah.

Sabah has an estimated 1.5 billion barrels of oil and 11 trillion cubic feet of gas reserves and is home to some of the world’s best scuba diving sites, according to the South China Morning Post.

The framers of the Philippines' draft federal constitution tried to revive the Sabah claim. When then Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad visited Manila in 2019, he said there was "no claim" to speak of.

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When Locsin assumed office 2018, one of the issues raised was whether or not to revive the Sabah claim under President Rodrigo Duterte. The DFA chief is also faced with the Philippines' long-running dispute with China over the South China Sea.

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