(Updated 9:56 a.m.) - President Benigno Aquino III on Tuesday morning made an "appeal" to Sultan Jamalul Kiram III to recall his followers from Sabah and end a three-week-old standoff peacefully.
In an early morning press briefing in Malacañang, Aquino also warned Kiram—and his possible collaborators —of the full force of the law for violating the 1987 Constitution.
"And so this is my appeal to you: These are your people, your people. It behooves you to recall them. It must be clear to you that this small group of people will not succeed in addressing your grievances, and that there is no way that force can achieve your aims," he said in a statement he read during the briefing.
The text of the statement was posted on the Official Gazette website after the briefing.
Aquino added Kiram should use his influence "to prevail on countrymen to desist from this hopeless cause."
"We have not reached the point of no return but we are fast approaching that point," he added, saying this is the time for Kiram to demonstrate that "you are their leader in name and deed."
“If you are truly the leader of your people, you should be one with us in ordering your followers to return home peacefully. As President and chief executor of our laws, I have tasked an investigation into possible violations of laws by you, your followers, and collaborators engaged in this foolhardy act,” Aquino said.
If Kiram chooses not to cooperate, Aquino said Kiram may face the "full force of the laws of the state."
Aquino said that the longer Kiram’s followers stay in Sabah, the more they endanger not just their own lives, but also those of the thousands of FIlipinos living and working in Sabah.
“The action of these people purporting to be your followers, endangers more than just their own lives. They also put at risk our countrymen peacefully engaged in their livelihood in Sabah,” Aquino said.
"These are hundreds of thousands of individuals. Their families, dependent on their wages, are likewise being made to suffer. Filipinos residing in Basilan, Sulu, and Tawi-Tawi, who trade with Sabah, have had their commerce disrupted. Most of these people are your fellow Muslims," he said.
Aquino gave no deadline to his orders, but emphasized that the administration calls on Filipinos involved in the standoff to come home immediately, as “deadlines have been thrown left and right.”
Aquino also said he has ordered an investigation into possible violations of laws by Kiram, his "followers and collaborators" who he said are "engaged in this foolhardy act."
He said the 1987 Constitution's Article 2, Section 2 states the Philippines "renounces war as an instrument of national policy."
Aquino also said Article 118 of the Revised Penal Code punishes those who “provoke or give occasion for a war…or expose Filipino citizens to reprisals on their persons or property.”
Aquino also said his duty is very clear—"to protect the interests of all of our people, and if that is not possible, then to do what will redound to the interests of the greatest majority."
No intention to ignore
Aquino also said he had been informed of a letter to him from Kiram had been sent through the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process in the first weeks of his term.
But the letter was "lost in the bureaucratic maze," he said.
"Let me make clear that there was no intention to ignore your letter. Knowing this now, will you let your mistaken belief dictate your course of action?" he added.
"The avenue of peaceful and open dialogue is still available to us. Let us therefore sit down as brothers to address your grievances in a peaceful, calm manner according to our laws and according to correct processes when your people arrive home," he said.
Aquino, however, refused to categorically answer if there is any truth to reports that the Kirams are not acting of their own volitions, but rather have some powerful backers that want to derail the peace process in Mindanao.
Instead, Aquino cited information indicating the Kirams are not in very good financial condition.
He also said there was "quite a large amount of money involved" in sending the followers to Sabah.
"Hence the first logical question would be, where did the funding come from and who is funding them?" he said.
"And who is funding them? So it seems clear at this point but we are still collating evidence that this was not an action just on their part," Aquino said.
Aquino went on to speculate that the money involved in ferrying people from Tawi Tawi to Sabah could come from outside sources.
'If they cooperate, we will talk'
However, after the press conference, presidential spokesman Secretary Edwin Lacierda came in to explain that what Aquino means in his speech is that peaceful dialogue with the Kirams is only possible if those involved in the standoff come home immediately.
"If they cooperate, we will talk to them, if they do not DOJ [Department of Justice] will talk to them," Lacierda said. —Patricia Denise Chiu/KG, GMA News