By Hader Glang
ZAMBOANGA CITY, the Philippines
Malaysia and the Philippines have announced they stand shoulder to shoulder on matters of peace and security, with both countries recognizing Thursday the need to ensure stability within and outside their borders.
The leaders kept the subject of the ownership of Sabah -- which Malaysia sees as its easternmost state -- off the menu, but Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak heralded his counterpart’s efforts to bring peace to the Philippines south.
In a statement issued following a bilateral meeting with visiting Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, Razak underlined that the Philippines was not only Malaysia's neighbor but also a friend.
"The Philippines is not only Malaysia’s neighbor, but also our friend, and I have been delighted by the strengthening of ties between our countries in recent years. While the relationship, like any other, has faced strains at times, our common interests far outweigh any points of disagreement," he said.
During campaigning for the presidential election, Duterte -- on the second day of a two-day official visit to Malaysia -- voiced support for returning a Malaysia-claimed region to the Philippines.
Since the 1960s, Malaysia has governed the resource-rich frontier Sabah region in northern Borneo as its second-largest federal state.
On Thursday, Philippine Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr. told reporters that both leaders had agreed to set the issue aside and not even talk about it for now.
“We had set the Sabah issue on the back burner, on the side, and we agreed to engage ourselves more vigorously on the area of trade and investment and the other aspects of mutual cooperation,” the Philippine Daily Inquirer quoted Yasay as saying.
“It may not be resolved within shortest possible time. It may take many years before we could find a workable and acceptable solution,” Yasay said.
In Thursday's statement, Razak said that that discussions had also taken place on progress made since the launch of the Implementing Phase of the Mindanao Peace Agreements between the Philippines' government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Since 2001, Kuala Lumpur has been hosting negotiations between the two to end a conflict that has killed 120,000 people, displaced 2 million and stunted growth in the resource-rich areas of the south.
"I welcome President Duterte’s signing of the executive order enabling the reconstitution of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission [BTC]," said Razak, underlining that this would in turn lead to the drafting of an enabling law for the eventual formation of a Bangsamoro Government.
The BTC is tasked with crafting a new Bangsamoro Basic Law, which is aimed at sealing a 2014 peace deal signed by the MILF and the government and paving the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro, a new autonomous political entity that would replace the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.
The MILF agreement is still to be completed, however, having been shelved for the 2016 election. Razak said that Duterte had acknowledged the strong support Malaysia had extended to the peace process and he was confident that with such a clear roadmap, remaining long-standing issues can be resolved.
"In Malaysia, President Duterte will find a steadfast partner in his quest to achieve peace in the southern Philippines," stressed Razak.
"We look forward to working closely with him and the Filipino people to strengthen even further the close ties that bind our two countries."
Heirs of the Sultan of Sulu -- an island group off the southern Philippines -- claim Sabah has belonged to their sultanate for centuries and was only leased to Malaysia, which pays a token amount to the Sultanate each year for the "rental" of the state -- an arrangement that stretches back to British colonial times.
Malaysian officials, however, contend the payments are part of an arrangement under which the sultanate has ceded the 74,000-square kilometer (28,000 square mile) territory to their country.
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