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Philippine sovereignty affirmed

Publication Date : 18-07-2012


Not many people know that the Kalayaan group of islands, which is part of the disputed Spratly island chain, is not all that barren and desolate and is in fact inhabited—by Filipinos.

Its largest island, Pag-asa, is home to about 200 Filipinos, and has been under the Philippine government’s control since the 1970s. The town is administered by the Kalayaan municipality in Palawan, about 527 kilometres (285 nautical miles) west of it.

Depending on the sea condition, it takes a full day to reach Pag-asa by boat from Kalayaan. That distance has not deterred the inhabitants from organising themselves into a viable, functioning community with strong ties to their home province and country. Pag-asa has built, among other essential infrastructure, a town hall, a health centre, an airstrip and a naval station, all under the Philippine flag.

What it didn’t have, for the longest time, was a school. Since the 1970s, families on the island have sent their children to Palawan to be educated. Fifteen kids currently attend grade school in this fashion.

“Students always had to leave the island for the mainland to study,” said Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon. “They would stay with one parent or their grandparents there....”

But last month, the island marked a milestone when it opened its very first school—a public kindergarten with five pupils. Built from an old multipurpose hall, the school was erected by the islanders themselves using secondhand construction materials. The lone teacher was enticed to move her family from Palawan, and she now presides over a classroom furnished with a blackboard, crayons, pencils and colouring books, which Bito-onon had acquired through donations.

“If you talk of social services on the island, we have housing, we have health, but when it comes to education, we’re zero,” said Bito-onon.

"For 34 years, we had no school and residents were already clamoring for it…So it wasn’t really difficult for us [to build the school]. And the parents were excited, they even participated in the cleanup activity, Brigada Eskwela. And the kids—they grabbed their new schoolbags and prodded their parents to bring them to class early.”

A Philippine flag flutters proudly in the yard of the first and only school on the 37-hectare island. But, if plans bear fruit, that school will no longer be by its lonesome. The party-list group Alliance of Concerned Teachers has announced it would use the second tranche of its pork barrel allocation to build a 2-storey, 6-classroom grade school building on Pag-asa.

Once operational, it would allow children on the island a shot at basic education without having to leave their families and journey across the sea to Palawan. “This school will guarantee that the hope of Pag-asa’s children for a better future is secure,” said Party-list ACT Representative Antonio Tinio.

Also, the elephant in the room: “A school standing on Pag-asa is an earnest affirmation of Philippine sovereignty in the Spratly group of islands—the provision for education, a basic social service.”

Indeed, it had to be said. While the inauguration of a tiny school with five pupils may sound inconsequential, the fact that it occurred in the disputed Spratlys invests it with considerably more weight and controversy. And if the laudable act of bringing education to poor children normally elicits only praise and encouragement, this one spawned shrill warnings from China against doing “any illegal activity that may infringe on China’s sovereignty… [and] any measure that will complicate and exacerbate the current situation and affect peace and stability in the South China Sea.”

China’s sovereignty? China was not heard from—wasn’t even on the islands—when the Philippines began exercising control over Pag-asa and building it into the community it is today. Not until China became an economic behemoth and realised it needed more resources to arrogate unto itself and exploit for its ends, hence the covetous eye on the potentially mineral- and oil-rich area.

Building a school in Pag-asa is no act of “exacerbation.” It is merely a continuation of the effective and unchallenged jurisdiction the Philippines has had on Kalayaan for over three decades now. Mayor Bito-onon gets it right when he says: “Let the Department of Foreign Affairs deal with China or any other claimant country. We [just] need to fulfill our obligations as a local government.”


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