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Philippines sidelined in islands dispute

By CNN's Rufi Vigilar

MANILA, Philippines (CNN) -- The International Court of Justice has turned down a request by the Philippine government to intervene in a territorial dispute between Indonesia and Malaysia.

The dispute between the Philippines' Southeast Asian neighbors involves sovereignty claims over two islands, Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan, off the coast of North Borneo.

The Philippines did not seek to be a third party in the dispute, but requested to intervene over fears a court decision on the case could affect its claim to North Borneo, also known as Sabah. Asia
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Sabah has formed part of Malaysia since 1963.

The United Nations' main judicial organ in the Hague supported the objections of Indonesia and Malaysia to the Philippines' intervention in the dispute over Pulau Ligitan and Pulau Sipadan.

The ICJ said that the documents presented by the Philippines were insufficient to show "an interest of a legal nature" that may be affected by the court's decision and interpretation of treatises in the case.

The court added that the arguments of Indonesia and Malaysia in the case "(do) not bear on the issue of retention of sovereignty" in the Philippines' claim to North Borneo.

The Philippines' foreign affairs spokesman, Victoriano Lecaros, told CNN that the possibility of filing an appeal "will still have to be discussed with legal advisers."

The ICJ decision was reached in a vote of 14 to one, after arguments were aired in public hearings in late June, the ICJ's information officer Laurence Blairon told CNN.

Sabah dispute

Sabah gained independence from Britain in August 1963, and a month later joined the other former British colonies of Malaya and Sarawak to form Malaysia.

The same year, Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo's father, Diosdado, then president, revived the country's claim to Sabah.

The Philippines maintains that Sabah was once ruled by the Sultanate of Sulu in the south.

The Philippine claim is based on a document dated January 18, 1878, signed by the Sultanate of Sulu, which the government says granted a "lease" to two foreigners over a part of Sabah.

Sovereignty over Sabah would extend control of either the Philippines or Malaysia over marine, natural gas and yet undiscovered crude oil resources in the Celebes Sea.

Bumpy relations

Despite the attention drawn by the ICJ decision to the Sabah dispute, Lecaros said the government "will not allow it to disrupt bilateral relations with Malaysia."

Diplomatic relations between the Philippines and Malaysia hit a snag last year when then Philippine president Joseph Estrada criticized Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's jailing of his former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of corruption and sexual misconduct.

However, Malaysia had in the same year also assisted the Philippine government in the release of some of the 40 Westerners and Asians seized by Muslim separatist guerrillas based in the southern Philippines.

Pulau Sipadan, one of the islands to which Malaysia lays claim in its dispute with Indonesia, was the site of last year's kidnapping by the Abu Sayyaf.

Just last week, joint naval exercises were conducted in Philippine waters, in an effort to prevent a repeat of such kidnapping incidents, piracy, and smuggling.


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