Monday, May 18, 2015

West Philippine Sea row draws foreign media to Zambales

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): West Philippine Sea row draws foreign media to Zambales

MASINLOC, Zambales -- Foreign journalists belonging to the East–West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii visited this town Saturday to get first-hand information on the conflict in the West Philippines Sea (WPS).

“The purpose is to better understand South China Sea– West Philippines Sea issue by talking to officials and fisherfolk in China, Philippines and Singapore. Here, we will give voice to Philippines perspective,” said Gerard Finin, director of the Pacific Islands Development Program of the East–West Center.

He said the 15 journalists came from Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, USA and Vietnam under an international journalism program called Jefferson Fellowship.

“We are trying to find deeper and better understanding of the problem from the international community,” Finin who is facilitator of the visit said.

He said that they will also talk with officials of other countries concerned to get their side on the dispute.

Governor Hermogenes Ebdane, Jr. and town mayor Desiree Edora welcomed the journalists at the three-story Masinloc municipal hall where they had tasty mangoes and "suman" for snack.

The governor said that earnings of fishermen have been drastically reduced with the tension and harassment of Zambales fishermen by the Chinese Coast Guard at the Scarborough Shoal declared by the Masinloc local government as Bajo de Masinloc.

“May the first-hand information be your strongest ally as you magnify them and put them in your own words to educate the world. My highest regard goes to all media practitioners who let the world see the situation through their own eyes,” Ebdane told the journalists.

He said that he has heard of the personal narratives of fishermen who became apprehensive about this territorial dispute affecting not only their means of living but also the welfare of their families.

“I hope that international media will focus not only on the polemics of establishing stronger grounds for the claim but will also highlight on the day-to-day plight for survival of our voiceless fishermen,” the governor said.

He said that before the tension flared up, fishermen from the Philippines, China, Taiwan and Vietnam were enjoying the bountiful catch in the disputed area.

“I would like to resonate the resounding proclamation of the fishermen wishing Bajo de Masinloc as a ‘fishing ground without boarders’and maintaining peaceful co-existence as their guiding principle while the conflict is not yet resolved,” Ebdane said.

“As you go back to your respective countries, may I beseech the power of your words, as you wield your pen, to give voice to the voiceless fishermen of Zambales,” the governor said.

The foreign journalists interviewed some fishermen who claimed they were harassed while fishing at the Scarborough Shoal.

Macario Forones, fishing boat owner, said they were driven away by the Chinese Coast Guard with AK-47 firearm on board speed boats.

“This is China Island,” Forones quoted the Chinese Coast Guard telling them.

He said that a Chinese helicopter aided in driving them away, seeing to it that they are already miles away from the shoal.

Forones showed to the foreign journalists two big fishing boats that used to fish at Bajo de Masinloc but only anchored on higher ground at a fishing village in the town adjacent to the West Philippines Sea.

Scarborough Shoal: Fishermen's paradise no more

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): Scarborough Shoal: Fishermen's paradise no more

Town mayor Desiree Edora has likened the disputed Scarborough Shoal to a treasured pot of gold suddenly taken away by a giant or formidable bandit.

She said that local fisherfolk used to enjoy festive fishing in the shoal that they shared with other fishermen from different towns in the Philippines and neighboring countries of Vietnam, Thailand and Taiwan.

“Our fishermen treasured Scarborough Shoal as a paradise fishing ground. It serves as their refuge from giant waves in times of typhoons. For them, the shoal is a safe place to stay in times of weather disturbance and dangerous sea journey,” the mayor said.

Edora said the Sangguniang Bayan of Masinloc passed a resolution in 2011 claiming Bajo de Masinloc as part of the town adjacent to the West Philippines Sea until China on April 8, 2012 claimed it as part of their territory.

“From then on, fishermen of Masinloc were barred. It is like having our own house but we are not allowed to live in it,” Edora said.

She said that 30 percent of the population of Masinloc is dependent on fishing as their main source of income.

“The controversial issue on Scarborough had greatly affected not only our local fisherfolk but also the community,” the mayor said.

“Our community cannot do anything in terms of international security and territorial disputes but we cannot deny the fact that we are disturbed socially, culturally and economically, especially our fisherfolk,” she said.

Fishermen leader Willy Ebito said they used to earn Php2,000 a day that went up to Php5,000 if they caught lobsters when fishing at the Scarborough Shoal.

“Now, we only earn Php300 per day through fishing,” he said.

Army, AFP joint operation vs. gunmen who killed soldier in North Cotabato

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): Army, AFP joint operation vs. gunmen who killed soldier in North Cotabato

CARMEN, North Cotabato-- Police and military authorities here have launched a joint manhunt against two men who shot dead an unarmed soldier in the village of Kibayao over the weekend.

Senior Inspector Julius Malucontento, Carmen police chief, said the suspects in the killing of Corporal Nestor Limbaga of the 37th Infantry Battalion, have been identified.

"We have launched a joint action with the military," he said.

Limbaga was driving his motorbike on Saturday heading for home when two men riding on a separate motorbike shot him from behind.

Malcontento said the suspects fled with the victim's motorbike. Civilians living nearby the crime scene rushed the victim to the town center.

He was declared dead on arrival in the hospital.

"This is more of a personal grudge," Malcontento said of the police investigation result. "But we are looking at other angles, including robbery."

Limbaga sustained gunshot wounds in the head and body from cal. 45 pistol.

Davao del Norte town youth join Army peace summit

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): Davao del Norte town youth join Army peace summit
TALAINGOD, Davao del Norte -- Some 118 young people from Talaingod participated in the Youth For Peace Summit 2015 conducted by the Army's 68th Infantry (Kaagapay) Battalion in partnership with the Talaingod Tribal Office at Balimba Hills, Barangay Sto. Niňo, Talaingod, Davao del Norte on May 14-17.

The participants of the four-day summit came from the most remote and conflict-affected Sitios of Talaingod. The event highlighted the discussion of the rights of the Indigenous People, ethnic practices and challenges in their communities. The primary objective of the summit is to educate the youth on how they can contribute to development and defend their communities from the exploitation and influence of various Left-leaning Organizations in the area that maliciously orchestrated the evacuation of IPs to Davao City last year.

Angelica Anlas, president of Talaingod Youth For Peace Movement, during the closing ceremony of the summit thanked government agencies especially the Department of Education for bringing the services in their area.

“We are very thankful to this opportunity to interact with the youth of Talaingod and hear their sentiments and aspirations. Most of them live in remote areas where they either have no or only have very limited access to education. This situation is the reason most of the IP communities in Talaingod are easily deceived by the works of Left-leaning Organizations and their youth effortlessly recruited by the NPA. With this, we will continue to engage the IP communities and help hasten the delivery of basic services by concerned government units and agencies and other stakeholders. The IP youth also have dreams and aspirations, and it’s high time that those concerned and responsible shall provide them the proper motivation and the correct foundation,” said Ltc. Oliveros, the Commanding Officer of the 68th Infantry (Kaagapay) Battalion of the Philippine Army.

DND allocates Php1.7-M for acquisition of dental, medical equipment

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): DND allocates Php1.7-M for acquisition of dental, medical equipment

To ensure that all military personnel are getting adequate dental and medical care, the Department of National Defense (DND) has allocated the sum of Php1,751,693.53 for the acquisition of modern and up-to-date medical equipment.

The money will be sourced from the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) Modernization Program.

To be acquired are one unit of vacuum assisted comprehensive dressing device which should not cost more than Php500,000; intermittent compression machine costing Php501,693.53 and pulley and tree worth Php750,000, for a total of Php1,751,693.53.

Winning bidders are required to deliver the items within 120 calendar days from the issuance of the notice to proceed.

PAF to overhaul 2 UH-1H helicopters

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): PAF to overhaul 2 UH-1H helicopters

The Philippine Air Force (PAF) is setting aside Php31,771,890 for the overhaul and repair of the engine assemblies of two UH-1H "Huey" helicopters.

These helicopters are the ones with tail numbers 513 and 225.

The money will be also be used to acquire spare parts needed for the overhaul.

Bid conference is scheduled for May 21 at 1 p.m. PAF Procurement Center Conference Room, Villamor Air Base, Pasay City.

While bid submission and opening is on June 2, 9 a.m. at the same venue.

Prospective bidders should have an experience in similar project within the last five years.

The PAF is known to operate 20 to 30 units of various models of the "Huey" helicopter.

The latter is a military helicopter powered by a single turboshaft engine, with two-bladed main and tail rotors.

The helicopter was developed by Bell Helicopter to meet the United States Army's requirement for a medical evacuation and utility helicopter in 1952, and it first flew on Oct. 20, 1956.

Ordered into production in March 1960, the UH-1 was the first turbine-powered helicopter to enter production for the United States military, and more than 16,000 have been produced worldwide.

Army troops participate in annual 'Brigada Ekswela' activities

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): Army troops participate in annual 'Brigada Ekswela' activities

Instead of automatic rifles and other weapons of war, Philippine Army (PA) troopers went out to the field carrying hammers and other building materials in aid of the Department of Education's "Brigada Eskwela" which formally began on Monday.

The latter is also known as National Schools Maintenance Week.

This year's "Brigada Eskwela" has a theme of “Tayo Para Sa Kalinisan at Kahandaan ng Ating mga Paaralan.”

Lt. Col. Noel Detoyato, PA spokesperson, said 400 soldiers from the Army’s Civil Military Operations Group, Army Support Command, Headquarters and Headquarters Support Group and Army Reserve Command were deployed to 18 schools in Taguig City, Makati City, Pasig City, Muntilupa City, Pasay City, Pateros and Tondo in Manila from May 18 to 23 to help teachers and parents in cleaning schools, repair school facilities and do maintenance work like repainting.

Detoyato said that the activity is also the PA’s way of communicating with the school children as embodied in the Army’s Transformation Roadmap; an Army that is more responsive, reliable, capable and committed to its mandate of serving the people and securing the land.

"Brigada Eskwela" is a yearly joint undertaking of concerned government agencies before the official opening of classes nationwide.

In the spirit of "Bayanihan," various groups and organizations, including the Philippine Army and Philippine National Police, join hands to make this year's "Brigada Eskwela" a success and ensure that the schools are child-friendly and conducive to learning.

This is one of the civilian-initiated programs actively supported by the PA as part of its "Bayanihan" activities.

Meanwhile, PA major units down to the battalions are also directed to participate in the said activity in their respective areas of responsibility.

MNLF central committee sees BBL as solution to attain peace in Mindanao

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): MNLF central committee sees BBL as solution to attain peace in Mindanao

The Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) central committee believes the proposed Bangsamoro Basic Law (BBL) is the best tool to end the 43-year agonizing conflict and eventually attain peace with justice in the Bangsamoro territories.

”The BBL based on the CAB (Comprehensive Agreement on the Bangsamoro) is our best chance to attain peace with justice and to build a truly genuine autonomy in the Bangsamoro territories,” MNLF central committee chairman Datu Abul Khayra D. Alonto said in the Senate hearing on the BBL on Monday.

Alonto said the people of Mindanao are tired of war that has claimed 200,000 lives, rendered two million homeless and destitute and forced three million to see refuge in the Middle East, Asia and elsewhere for the last 43 years.

”We no longer want to fall prey to the divide-and-rule tactics used on the peoples of Mindanao; we now stand together with the MILF as one, for the immediate passage of the BBL based on the CAB,” Alonto said.

He urged the Congress that instead of utilizing hundreds of millions of pesos to keep the war machines in Mindanao and Sulu, the money should be used for livelihood and education programs to address poverty in the region.

Alonto also called for an end to the colonial policy that the Philippine government inherited from its foreign masters.

”Until you put an end to the colonial policy, then, you shall have before you the continuation of the Mindanao war,” Alonto said.

”The Bangsamoro cause is beyond personalities, politics and families. It is the conviction of the souls of the Bangsamoro people, and the BBL passage addresses the historical and social injustices that gave rise to the Mindanao war,” he added.

He also suggested to finally adopt the federal parliamentary form of government, saying it is the best and only solution to the Bangsamoro conflict.

”A federation can enhance national unity in diversity, strengthen the mechanism of transparency and accountability in good governance, and usher in a truly equitable development, progress and prosperity in the Philippines,” Alonto said.

Alonto said if the Philippine Congress will enact a BBL not based on the CAB signed in March last year, “then we ask you not to waste the money of the Philippine coffer.”

He said the MNLF stands in solidarity with the MILF in the immediate passage of the BBL based on CAB.

During the hearing, former Rep. Gerry Salapuddin called for end of war in Mindanao by passing a not diluted BBL.

”Let us work for peace. Enough for war and the imperial Manila has more to gain if there will be peace in Mindanao,” Salapuddin said.

The Bangsamoro foreign trained cadre officers from western Mindanao also expressed fully support for the passage of the BBL.

”We deeply believe that the approval of the BBL by this august chamber certainly fulfill the longed dreams and aspiration of the Bangsamoro,” the group stated in their position paper.

However, other MNLF faction groups, specifically the group loyal to former MNLF chairman Nur Misuari as well as the MNLF-Islamic Command Council under chairman Habib Mudjahab Hasim, decried the non-consultation of the BBL.

”The MNLF senior leaders are not happy with the BBL,” Edmund Gumbahali, head of the national secretariat of Misuari’s group.

MNLF-ICC group chairman Habib Mudjahab Hashim opposed the passage of the BBL since it would abolish the existing Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and to be replaced by the Bangsamoro government.

”Congress cannot abolish ARMM without amending the Constitution. The abrogation of the ARMM law is the abrogation of the 1976 Tripoli and 1996 Jakarta Agreements between government and MNLF,” Hashim said.

Senator Ferdinand ‘Bongbong’ Marcos Jr., chairman of the Senate committee on local government, thanked the MNLF leaders for sharing their thoughts on the proposed BBL.

Marcos said his committee will conduct one or two more hearings for the Sultanates and indigenous peoples as well as local executives, particularly in the areas which will be covered by the Bangsamoro political entity.

Marcos said the Senate has to scrutinize carefully the BBL to make sure it will address the root cause of the long decades of war and poverty in Mindanao.

”I cannot understand why we have to rush this important piece of legislation. I’m asking them (the government) why we have to rush it. I think the June 11 is a political deadline,” Marcos said.

AFP still validating reports that abducted Malaysians taken in Sulu

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): AFP still validating reports that abducted Malaysians taken in Sulu

The Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) on Monday is still verifying reports that the two Malaysian nationals who were abducted by Abu Sayyaf Group bandits in Sandakan, Malaysia last May 14, may have been brought to Sulu.

AFP public affairs office chief Lt. Col. Harold Cabunoc disclosed as military operatives were still conducting operations against the ASG in a bid to rescue the six remaining hostages it is holding captive.

"We have heard various reports about them being brought to Sulu (but) we could not confirm it, we could (not) validate it as of this time, we are still validating it as of this time," he added.

Meanwhile, Rear Admiral Reynaldo Yoma, Joint Task Force ZAMBASULTA (Zamboanga, Basilan, Sulu and Tawi-Tawi) head, reiterated Cabunoc's statements.

"I cannot confirm the information that they were brought to Parang and then transferred to Indanan, both in Sulu. Our operatives are still validating their whereabouts," he said.

PHL, ROK defense cooperation on a new high

From the Philippine News Agency (May 18): PHL, ROK defense cooperation on a new high

Cooperation between the Philippines and Republic of Korea (ROK) have reached a new high following the visit of ROK Army chief-of-staff Gen. Gen Kim Yo-Hwan at the Department of National Defense (DND) main office in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City last May 14.

DND Secretary Voltaire Gazmin expressed his thanks to Kim for the ROK Army's help during the aftermath of Typhoon "Yolanda", particularly the deployment of the "Araw Unit" in places hardest hit by the super typhoon.

"The people of Tacloban and nearby towns only had good things to say about the Araw Unit. We truly thank you," he said.

The DND chief also expressed satisfaction with the dependability of the various KM trucks and ambulances acquired from South Korea under the AFP Modernization Program.

Gazmin said he was "thankful for the ROK's interest in the modernization of the Philippines."

In addition to the trucks and ambulances, the Philippines will be acquiring 12 FA-50 lead-in fighter-trainers worth Php18.9 billion from South Korea, the biggest modernization project to date.

The first batch of FA-50 is expected to be delivered before the end of the year.

For his part, Kim expressed his gratitude for the very warm hospitality shown to him during his stay in the Philippines, his very first visit to the country.

Kim said that the deployment of the "Araw Unit" is just one of the manifestations of South Korea's gratitude for the help the Philippines gave to Korea during the Korean War.

Govt forces hunt Malaysian bomb-maker aiding PH extremists

From the Manila Standard Today (May 18): Govt forces hunt Malaysian bomb-maker aiding PH extremists

Bomb factory. Filipino soldiers display various types of improvised explosive
devices with related materials and ‘shahada’ banners similar to those used
by ISIS  at a village in Mohammad Ajul town, Basilan in  Mindanao on May
16, 2015 after state troops raided the bomb factory on May 14. Three Muslim
militants and a soldier were killed  on May 14 when  the   troops raided a
bomb factory of an Al-Qaeda-linked group, a military official said.  AFP

GOVERNMENT forces in Mindanao said Saturday they were hunting a suspected Malaysian bomb-maker who might be helping local Al-Qaeda-linked extremists.

The suspect, identified as Mohammad Najib, is believed to have fled after troops overran one of their bomb-making camps in Basilan on Thursday, said Col. Joselito Rolando Bautista, Basilan’s military commander.

Three militants and one soldier were killed when soldiers overran the camp of the Abu Sayyaf group, an armed band founded in the 1990s with seed money from Osama bin Laden’s Al-Qaeda network.

“Mohammad Najib has been helping Ustadz Abbas Alam, the Abu Sayyaf leader in the area in making bombs and recruiting young people,” Bautista told reporters.

Last week, acting National Police Chief Leonardo Espina said the authorities were now training their guns on Malaysian bomb maker Amin Baco after the death of terrorists Zulkifli bin Hir of Malaysia and Basit Usman.

Basilan Mayor Jain Pawaki said residents had also told him that a Malaysian had been assisting the Abu Sayyaf especially in bomb-making.

Bautista and Pawaki made their remarks while escorting reporters to the captured Abu Sayyaf outpost and showed off captured transceiver radio sets, nails, ammonium nitrate, rolls of wire, electrical components and iron pipes rigged with explosives.

They also showed several black flags that are similar to the ones used by the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

“The recovery is a big blow to the operation of the Abu Sayyaf and their plots to stage bombings were prevented,” Bautista said.

The Abu Sayyaf gained international notoriety for the worst militant attacks in Philippine history including bombings and kidnapping Christians and foreigners for ransom.

Their attacks include the 2004 firebombing of a ferry off Manila Bay that killed more than 100 people.

Despite receiving training assistance from the United States, the Philippines has struggled to contain the Abu Sayyaf, whose leader last year pledged allegiance to the Islamic State movement.

ROK Army chief made a visit to Philippines

From Ang Malaya (May 18): ROK Army chief made a visit to Philippines

 Philippines and Republic of Korea’s relationship was strengthened after ROK Army chief-of-staff General Kim Yo-Hwan’s visit at the Department of National Defense main office in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City on May 14.

“The people of Tacloban and nearby towns only had good things to say about the Araw Unit. We truly thank you,” Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said to General Kim.

Secretary Gazmin also expressed satisfaction with the reliability of various KM trucks and ambulances acquired under the AFP Modernization Program from South Korea.

The defense secretary said he was “thankful for the ROK’s interest in the modernization of the Philippines.”

The country will also ordered 12 FA-50 lead-in fighter-trainers worth Php18.9 billion from South Korea. The first two FA-50 is expected to be delivered before the year ends.

Kim, who visited the Philippines for the first time, expressed his gratitude for the very warm hospitality he received during his stay in the country. He also said the deployment of the ‘Araw Unit’ is just one of South Korea’s expressions of gratitude for the Philippines help to Korea during the Korean War.

The residents of Pag-asa: Life in a disputed island

From Rappler (May 18): The residents of Pag-asa: Life in a disputed island

For decades, Pag-asa residents have been oblivious to sporadic incidents elsewhere in the West Philippine Sea. But now they see China's massive reclamation in the area and know that times have changed.

PAG-ASA (HOPE) ISLAND. Located 300 nautical miles away from mainland Palawan, Pag-asa island is a home to about a hundred Filipinos. Photo of SSg Milay/Philippine Air Force

PAG-ASA ISLAND, Philippines – Filipino Randy Dacumos boarded a ship bound for Pag-asa (Thitu) island in 2008 after agreeing to join a team of construction workers hired to build houses in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea) also claimed by China, Taiwan, and Vietnam.

He did not give it much thought when his foreman first told him about the assignment. Jobs were scarce. He was single and had no responsibilities to leave behind. He expected to be back home as soon as they finished the job.

QUIET LIFE: Like many construction workers hired for temporary work in Pag-asa island, Randy Dacumos decided to settle in the isolated island. Rappler photo
QUIET LIFE: Like many construction workers hired for temporary work in Pag-asa island, Randy Dacumos decided to settle in the isolated island. Rappler photo
“I came from the town of Roxas in Palawan for a construction work. I ended up liking it here. I later became an employee of the municipal hall," Dacumos told Rappler in Filipino.

He has sailed back home a few times, but it's here where he had chosen to build a life and a family. “It’s quiet here. Life is good. We are able to save because everything is free,” he added.

Dacumos and a little over a hundred others constitute a small Filipino community in the island about 300 nautical miles from mainland Palawan. Everything they need to survive in a place that cannot grow rice or corn is provided to them by the local government – housing, solar home system for electricity, and food packages that include 14 kilos of rice per person a month, cooking oil, canned good, noodles, salt and sugar.

There's cable TV signal for those who can afford the monthly fees, and the municipal government is working to connect the school library to the Internet.

Pag-asa, a Filipino word which means hope, is a barangay (village) and the political seat of power of Palawan’s municipality of Kalayaan (Freedom) that was established in 1978. Indeed, the second biggest naturally occurring island located outside the country's 200 nautical miles exclusive economic zone (EEZ) brings hope that the small nation can protect its claims in the world’s busiest trade route which is also believed to be rich in oil and natural resources.

Like a big family

Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon, who came from Palawan’s Brooke’s Point town, arrived on the island on a C-130 plane in 1997 after taking the job as municipal planning officer. There were only about 20 residents then, he recalled, because it was previously reached only by Filipino troops manning military outposts. Aside from the runway, the municipal hall, multi-purpose hall, and a 5-bed lying in clinic were already in place when he arrived.

"When I saw the place, I said 'This is so beautiful.' It's an island. It's like a resort. But most of the people here were soldiers," Bito-onon said in Filipino.

He witnessed the civilian population grow. Most of them were visiting construction workers like Dacumos, municipal employees like the mayor, and their relatives.

“It’s not so hard to live in the island. The government is very supportive. We’re just like a big family,” Bito-onon told Rappler in Filipino.

"Basta yung mga matakaw sa alak at basagulero, pinapauwi ko para di makahawa. Nakakaipon na rin ang mga matino at matibay sa isla (I send home those who turn out to be drunkards and troublemakers so they don't influence the residents. The good ones are able to save.)," he added.
PHILIPPINE FLAG. Filipino residents and soldiers conduct a flag raising ceremony during the visit of Armed Forces of the Philippines military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr in Pag-asa (Thitu) island on May 11. Photo by Ritchie Tongo/EPA
PHILIPPINE FLAG. Filipino residents and soldiers conduct a flag raising ceremony during the visit of Armed Forces of the Philippines military chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr in Pag-asa (Thitu) island on May 11. Photo by Ritchie Tongo/EPA 

Over time, Palaweños have heard about the freebies on the island. Many wanted to move here, but Bito-onon said he has to limit the population to 120 to protect the vegetation. "The forest might be denuded if we accommodate more because we rely on firewood to cook. Transportation is difficult. We cannot bring in cooking gas," he said.

There's no harbor on the island, a project that has been repeatedly delayed by lack of funding or by protests from China. Ships have to dock 2 kilometers away from the shore, making the movement of supplies to the island very difficult.

"We need a harbor. It's okay if they forget our other wishes. Just give us a harbor and we'll take care of the rest," Bito-onon said.

Changing times

For decades, the island residents have been generally oblivious to sporadic incidents elsewhere in the West Philippine Sea. They’ve regarded these tensions faraway as matters to be settled diplomatically.

But they know times have changed. They watched China begin reclamation early this year in nearby Subi (Zamora Reef). Only 14 nautical miles away, the cranes are visible to the naked eye. Residents also speak of how light from Subi Reef twinkles at night.
CHINA'S PRESENCE. Filipinos in Pag-asa island can watch the massive reclamation in nearby Subi (Zamora) Reef. Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler
CHINA'S PRESENCE. Filipinos in Pag-asa island can watch the massive reclamation in nearby Subi (Zamora) Reef. Carmela Fonbuena/Rappler

Bito-onon said it’s making the residents uneasy. “Tanaw na tanaw ang high rise crane ng naked eye. May mga beses na hinahabol kami at nagko-cross kami ng warship. Lahat ng ‘yan may impact rin sa ilang pananaw e. Pero sa tagal na rin nila sa isla, hindi na rin sila ganoon kadaling matakot,” said Bito-onon.

(We have a good view of the high-rise crane. There are several instances when warships try to run after us or they cross our bow. All of these are affecting the residents. But they’ve been here for a while. They won’t be scared away so easily.)

It's a distraction that families here would rather not have. Take the case of Randy and Gloria.

Randy weds Gloria

Randy met his wife Gloria here. She’s a widow with two children from Palawan’s Taytay municipality. She arrived in Pag-asa much earlier than Randy upon the prodding of her brother, whose wife was also a former municipal hall employee.

Gloria also thought she would only come to visit and then take the next ship back home. But fate had other plans.

Bito-onon recalled how Gloria’s sister-in-law successfully matched the two. “Yung ate niya, si Yaga. Siya ang nag-reto-reto kaya nagkatuluyan si Randy at Gloria (It was her Gloria's sister-in-law who played matchmaker for the two. That was how they ended up together.),” he said.

It was Bito-onon himself who wed them in a ceremony in the summer of 2014 after the birth of their daughter.
GIRLFRIENDS. Gloria Dacumos (rightmost) and her friends. Rappler photo
GIRLFRIENDS. Gloria Dacumos (rightmost) and her friends. Rappler photo

They started a new family as the region saw massive changes.

When Randy arrived in 2008, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was president and the country entered into a joint exploration agreement – the Joint Marine Seismic Undertaking (JMSU) – with China and Vietnam.

She ushered in years of friendship with China following disputes over its occupation of Mischief (Panganiban) Reef in 1995 while Filipino troops were away to take shelter from a bad weather and what the Philippines called “creeping invasion” when it constructed structures in the reef in 1999. Fidel Ramos and Joseph Estrada were presidents, respectively, during the two incidents inside the country's EEZ.

But while Arroyo’s JMSU calmed the seas, she was accused of treason because the site of the JMSU is 80% within the country's EEZ.

Her critics linked the JMSU to the controversial and allegedly graft-ridden loans extended by China – North Rail and national broadband deal projects, among others – as the supposed reward for Philippine officials for “selling out” the Philippines.

President Benigno Aquino III would succeed her in 2010 and tension with China resumed following the discontinuation of the JMSU.

Two years later, in 2012, the situation exploded into a naval standoff in Scarborough Shoal off the coast of Zambales province in Luzon. It resulted in the practical occupation by the Chinese of the fertile fishing ground that used to provide livelihood to Filipino fishermen.

This incident, also within in the country's EEZ, would prompt the Philippines to file its historic arbitration case against China. It's a gambit that continues to split government officials and security observers. (READ: Aquino: This battle is not just about China and Justice Carpio: What is at stake in our case vs China)

China started driving away fishermen in Scarborough Shoal using water cannons, blocking resupply and rotation missions to Ayungin Shoal, and then reclaimed in 7 reefs turning them into artificial islands feared to become military outposts. Lately, it started challenging aircraft, too, prompting concerns that China is imposing an air defense zone in the region.

'May dalawang klase ng tao sa mga social media. Ang tawag ko doon utak pulbura at saka hindi utak pulbura. Maraming mga utak pulbura hindi nila naiintindihan ang situwasyon doon sa ground.'
- Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon

Randy and Gloria are hoping for the best. “Minsan kapag nababalitaan sa TV, kinakabahan kami. Nanalangian kami na sana hindi mangyari (magkagulo). Maganda kasi dito. Tahimik (Sometimes news on TV also bother us. We are praying that nothing untoward will happen here. It’s really nice here. It’s quiet.),” Gloria told Rappler.

Randy takes comfort in knowing that none of them have been hurt in spite of the reports. Unlike the situation in Scarborough Shoal, the fishermen of Pag-asa island are not being harassed.

In this part of the South China Sea, Mayor Bito-onon said the fishermen coming from different countries peacefully co-exist although illegal fishing is a constant concern.

And while Chinese media had reported supposed plans to invade Pag-asa, Mayor Bito-onon dismissed it. “Hindi ako naniniwala na kukunin ng China kahit anong isla ng Pilipinas. Hindi ‘yun. Napaka-stupido naman ng China para kunin pa ang mga isla natin (I don’t believe that China will take the islands of the Philippines. It will be stupid for them to do that.),” Bito-onon said.
JUST ANOTHER DAY. Soldiers and civilians on Pag-asa Island. Photo by Vincent Go/Rappler

JUST ANOTHER DAY. Soldiers and civilians on Pag-asa Island. Photo by Vincent Go/Rappler

Outgunned PH military

On May 11, AFP chief General Gregorio Catapang Jr visited Pag-asa in the first known visit of a Philippine military chief to the disputed island in almost a decade. (WATCH: VLOG: PH military chief tours disputed South China Sea)

“I’m visiting this place to establish the fact that Pag-asa is a territory of the Republic of the Philippines,” Catapang told reporters during the visit that China protested as “futile and illegal.”

Public reaction to the Philippine military's actions mirrors the split among government officials. There are those who call for a more aggressive response to China, especially in the social media, and there are those who feel military statements and photo releases relating to China’s reclamation activities are not helping.

Bito-onon bats for sobriety. "May dalawang klase ng tao sa mga social media. Ang tawag ko doon utak pulbura at saka hindi utak pulbrura. Maraming mga utak pulbura hindi nila naiintindihan ang situwasyon doon sa ground," he said. "Kailangan tanawin siya sa isang paraan na (We have to view it from the perspective of a) peaceful, harmonious coexistence," he added.

The government has been too careful not to antagonize China any further while the arbitration case is pending. Malacañang has ordered the military to defer to the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) in issuing statements about the dispute. It has also stalled plans to, among others, repair the runway and construct a much-needed harbor in Pag-asa island. (READ: PH runway in Spratlys erodes as China reclaims to build own)

A military officer said they are avoiding a situation where the ramming incidents in Scarborough would be repeated in the Spratlys, where the military has several outposts that can only be reached by ships.

On the ground, the troops are not lacking in resolve but they can only do so much without the hardware. “Bilang isang sundalo, nandito po kami para ipagtanggol at bantayan po ang West Philippine Sea lalong lalo dito sa Pag-asa,” said Corporal Tychico Octobre of the Philippine Marines, who has been guarding the shores of Pag-asa in the last 5 months.

But they find it difficult to repel even illegal fishermen who do not hesitate to come near the island. The Philippine Coast Guard is also present here, but it has a few men and fewer boats. They work under the supervision of the Philippine Navy.

"Ang ginagawa ng coast guard hinahabol nila at wina-warning-an kapag may lumalapit sa area,” said Coast Guard spokesperson Lt Commander Armand Balilo, who joined the May 11 trip to the island. "Nasasaway naman nila. Kaya lang depende kasi may times na baka hindi nila nakita. Sabi ko nga sa kanila, just be very alert lalo na sa report ng tao. Kapag na-report sa kanila, pinupuntahan naman nila," Balilo added.
MARINE. Filipino soldier Tychico Octobre patrols on the shores of Pagasa (Thitu) island  in the Spratlys. Photo by Ritchie Tongo/EPA
MARINE. Filipino soldier Tychico Octobre patrols on the shores of Pagasa (Thitu) island in the Spratlys. Photo by Ritchie Tongo/EPA

The mayor’s dream

In spite of the worsening situation, Mayor Bito-onon is busy making the island accessible to tourists.

“We have long been promoting Pag-asa or Kalayaan to tourism but we’re only doing a backyard approach. We do not have that much money but we have a roadmap for developing tourism,” Bito-onon said in a joint press conference with Catapang here.

He is building a jump-off station in mainland Palawan, where tourists will ride a shuttle that will bring them to a small steel-hulled boat for a 26-hour trip to the island. Here, there will be a lodging house and a Pasalubong Center or a gift shop for souvenirs.

It’s an opportunity for tourists who are willing to wait even years to get booked for the rare trip. The steel-hulled boat that can accommodate 25 tourists at a time is now being built in Subic, costing the municipality about P10 million. Bito-onon said the first trip will bring in construction supplies.

He now has clients. Last month, a ham radio station was set up on the island, connecting it to a community of 85,000 adventurers in 120 countries. “In their community, Pag-asa or Kalayaan is No. 19 in their “rare-to-go” list. Tourism is feasible for them because they want adventure,” Bito-onon said.

Bito-onon is eagerly awaiting a favorable ruling on the country’s arbitration case, which is expected next year. “I appreciate the arbitration case. It will settle [the disputes] permanently and legally. Doon na rin ako sumunod na kapag natapos ang arbitration case, paspasan na ang Pilipinas na mag-develop,” Bito-onon told Rappler (Once the case is settled, then we can fast-track the development here.)

MILF close to removal from UN list of groups using child soldiers

From MindaNews (May 18): MILF close to removal from UN list of groups using child soldiers

The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) announced it was on its way to completing the UN-MILF action plan to get it delisted as a group that uses child combatants.

International human rights standards define a child soldier or combatant as an individual who is below 18 years old.

The announcement came in time for the launching Monday of the “Children, Not Soldiers” campaign in Cotabato City by the UN International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) and the MILF.

The campaign is a series of public events to be run by the MILF, in coordination with the UNICEF for the next four months, in their base commands to signal their commitment to stop using children in combat.

Edward Guerra, chairman of the five-member panel of UN-MILF action plan said, sanctions will be meted to ground commanders who will violate the order to desist from using children in war.

“As to the implementation, we were almost halfway. We have the checklist and we will not go astray as long as we follow the roadmap,” Guerra said.

The MILF, along with other the Abu Sayyaf, New People’s Army and Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters, was included in the UN list of armed groups using child soldiers.

Last year, the start of the program, UNICEF country representative Lotta Sylwander said the MILF was the only non-state armed group in the world attempting to be removed from the list of groups using children as combatants.

“What we want from the children in Mindanao is to have a happy, healthy and peaceful childhood. We don’t want children to be fighting, carrying guns or used as spies but rather learning and playing,” said Rebecca Pankhurst, UNICEF’s chief field officer.

Wilma Madato, a Bangsamoro Islamic Women Auxiliary Brigade member, called the action plan a way forward to the future of their children.