Philippine president in ‘humanitarian’ plea to Malaysia over virus-stranded Filipinos

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. (AFP)
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Updated 16 September 2020

Philippine president in ‘humanitarian’ plea to Malaysia over virus-stranded Filipinos

  • Duterte’s appeal follows war of words over disputed territory of Sabah where 3,000 Filipinos are trapped

MANILA: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on Monday brushed differences aside and appealed to the Malaysian government’s “humanitarian sense” in helping to repatriate 3,000 Filipinos stranded in a disputed part of Borneo due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

The Filipino leader’s plea came despite a long-standing dispute between the two countries over the territory of Sabah, a Malaysian state in the island’s north.

“That has been a very ticklish issue between our government and 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 do for your citizens if they are in our country,” Duterte said in an address.

The president made his request after being briefed by Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana on the progress of repatriation efforts for overseas Filipinos.

Nearly 400 Filipinos are expected to arrive from Sabah within the week, joining about 2,000 others who have returned home from Malaysia since June when the government initiated the process.

The total number of repatriated Filipinos includes those who were affected by the cancellation of flights and Malaysia’s border closures following the COVID-19 outbreak. The majority of them are undocumented workers. This is in addition to nearly 3,000 Filipinos in Sabah who are still awaiting repatriation. 

Duterte’s appeal for help follows a war of words between the two countries in July after Secretary of Foreign Affairs Teodoro Locsin Jr. asserted Philippines’ control over the disputed territory of Sabah by tweeting that it was “not in Malaysia.”

Locsin was reacting to a tweet by the American embassy in Manila talking about the US Agency for International Development (USAID) donating hygiene kits to “returning Filipino repatriates from Sabah, Malaysia.”

It led to Malaysia’s Foreign Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Hussein calling Locsin’s tweet an “irresponsible statement that affects bilateral ties.”

Two months later, in August, Malaysia issued a note verbale rejecting the Philippines’ claim over Sabah.

Meanwhile, in his address on Monday, Duterte also instructed the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) and its attaches to assist Filipino workers stranded at sea due to the pandemic.

“I would like to direct the foreign affairs department, our commercial attache, and even the police – we have police and military guys who are assigned in the different embassies – kindly check and do a validation report if there are Filipinos stranded in your ... area of responsibility in countries where you are assigned,” he said.

He added that there were Filipino seafarers stuck out at sea after their ships had been prevented from docking in ports due to COVID-19 precautionary measures.

“In so many places around the world where Filipinos are working, some are still in limbo. They do not know where they will go and whether or not they could still go home,” he said, adding that some were even “infected with COVID-19.”

Duterte said it “pained” him to think that there may be any “inadequacy in the assistance being extended by the government,” and he tasked officials from the country’s diplomatic missions abroad to work with governments in their jurisdictions to help the stranded workers.

“A human being should never, never be a commodity that is just left behind to rot. These are human beings and Filipinos,” he added.

Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire strained by fierce new clashes

Updated 21 October 2020

Nagorno-Karabakh cease-fire strained by fierce new clashes

  • The cease-fire, agreed to on Saturday, has had little impact on fighting that began on Sept. 27

YEREVAN/BAKU: A cease-fire in the mountain territory of Nagorno-Karabakh was under severe strain on Tuesday after fierce new clashes between Azeri and ethnic Armenian forces fighting their deadliest battles since the 1990s. 

The cease-fire, agreed to on Saturday, has had little impact on fighting that began on Sept. 27, despite concerns it could spark a wider conflict involving Russia and Turkey.

In an interview, Armenian President Armen Sarkissian accused Turkey of destabilising the South Caucasus with its strong backing for Azerbaijan. But he said he did not advocate military intervention by Russia, which has a defense pact with Armenia.

“What I’m preaching is not involving Russia and then tomorrow Iran and a third party, and making Armenia and Azerbaijan and the Caucasus another Syria,” he told France-24 television.

“What I’m saying here is that instead of talking about involving Russia, we have to talk about excluding Turkey, which has a completely destructive role here.”

Ankara denies accusations by Armenia, France and Russia that it sent mercenaries from the conflicts in Syria and Libya to fight in Nagorno-Karabakh, which broke away from Azerbaijan as the Soviet Union collapsed.

In comments to Azerbaijan’s parliament, Turkish Parliament Speaker Mustafa Sentop portrayed Armenia as the aggressor and criticized mediation led for years by France, the United States and Russia under the auspices of the OSCE security watchdog.

“If they are sincere on their path to peace, those who have held Armenia’s leash and supported it for years need to end this dangerous game now and stop supporting Armenia. Azerbaijan does not have another 30 years to wait,” Sentop said.

The OSCE’s Nagorno-Karabakh mediating panel, known as the Minsk Group, “is brain dead,” he said.

Several hundred people have been killed since Sept. 27 in fighting involving drones, warplanes, heavy artillery, tanks and missiles, raising fears of a humanitarian crisis and concerns about the security of oil and gas pipelines in Azerbaijan.

The new cease-fire appears to have had no more effect on fighting than an earlier deal brokered by Russia that failed.

Azerbaijan wants an end to what it calls Armenian occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh. Armenia rules this out and accuses Azerbaijan of making a land grab.

Officials in Nagorno-Karabakh reported new artillery battles on Tuesday and said fighting was intense in southern areas of the conflict zone.

Azerbaijan’s Defense Ministry also reported fighting in several areas, including disputed territory close to the line of contact dividing the sides. It said Armenian forces were shelling the Azeri regions of Terter and Aghdam.

Azerbaijan said its foreign minister, Jeyhun Bayramov, would hold talks with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the Minsk Group in Washington on Friday, but gave no details.

Russia’s permanent representative to the United Nations said the Security Council had discussed the conflict on Monday. Asked about the possibility of UN observers going to the region, he said that would require a mandate from the Security Council.

“This is not a quick process,” the envoy, Vasily Nebenzya, was quoted as saying by TASS. He suggested any observer mission might involve the OSCE.