Duterte asks Malaysia to help Filipinos in Sabah despite territorial row

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 15) — President Rodrigo Duterte is requesting Malaysia's government to assist Filipinos stranded in Sabah, over which the two countries have a territorial dispute.

He expressed hope his plea will be heeded, in the same way the Philippine government is willing to assist Malaysia's citizens amid the pandemic. He made the statement after being briefed by officials late Monday on the repatriation of Filipinos abroad, including from Sabah.

"Now, I am happy to hear from Secretary Galvez that they are coming home, some of them are from Sabah. Iyon, malamang doon din even the issue of hospital care. That has been a very ticklish issue between our government," Duterte said. [Translation: Most likely there is even the issue of hospital care there]

"And we are — we are trying our best to appeal to the humanitarian sense of the Malaysian government to please help our citizens in your country, as we would — as we would do for your citizens if they are in our country," he added.

It was not clear what kind of assistance he wanted from Malaysia, and if he was referring to the territorial row over Sabah as the "ticklish issue" between the two governments.

"A human being should never, never be a commodity that is just left behind to rot," he said about stranded Filipinos, before talking specifically about those in Sabah.

Secretary Delfin Lorenzana, the chairman of the National Task Force against COVID-19, said around 3,000 Filipinos are stuck in Sabah awaiting repatriation. The fifth batch of Filipinos will be sent back to the Philippines next week, bringing the total number of repatriates to over 2,000.

The two regional allies have long kept the decades-old dispute in the back burner, but a tweet from Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr., saying "Sabah is not in Malaysia," recently triggered a public spat. This led to Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein summoning Philippine envoy Charles Jose in July over the post, while Locsin also threatened to invite the other country’s envoy.

Malaysia has considered Sabah its territory since it became part of the Malaysian federation in 1963. Kuala Lumpur maintains that the United Nations and the international community have recognized Sabah as part of Malaysia.

Manila, however, insists that Sabah was merely on lease to Malaysia by the Sultanate of Sulu, which has ceded sovereignty over the area to the Philippines.