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Job to die for: Seaman now a teacher on Pagasa Island

Pagasa Island, part of the disputed Spratly group of islands, in the South China Sea located off the coast of western Philippines. AP FILE PHOTO

It’s a “first in the history of the Philippine Coast Guard” and the command is very proud of it.

The Coast Guard’s Apprentice Seaman Oliver Mazo has been deployed to Pagasa Island (Thitu Island) in the Spratly archipelago in the West Philippine Sea and joined a small team of Department of Education (DepEd) personnel teaching children at the lone primary school in Kalayaan town, Cmdr. Armand Balilo, spokesperson for the Coast Guard, said on Saturday.

Mazo, 25, has a degree in elementary education from Romblon State University. He joined the Coast Guard in June 2013. He was transported to Pagasa on a Coast Guard Islander plane last week, in time for the opening of classes.

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He is “now hands-on as an educator,” Balilo said.

“But he is not taking a break from his duties as a coast guard while on this special assignment. His stay on Pagasa would also be a good opportunity for him to continue honing his skills as a guardian of the sea,” Balilo said.

The Coast Guard maintains a substation on Pagasa Island.

Mazo, a native of Lunas village in Romblon, capital of the island-province of Romblon, will teach in Kalayaan Elementary School for “at least six months,” Balilo said.

He said the Coast Guard would decide whether Mazo needed to stay on the island until the end of the school year, based on an assessment of “the command’s educators deployment program.”

Two more coast guards are undergoing teacher training in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan province, in preparation for deployment to Pagasa, Balilo said.

More teachers needed

Vice Adm. Rodolfo Isorena, Coast Guard commandant, has “orders” to look for coast guards with backgrounds on education and who may be interested in joining the DepEd team on Pagasa, he said.

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“For young coast guards who love adventure, it’s a to-die-for assignment,” he added.

There is an incentive for coast guards to spend time on the faraway island to serve as educators.

“While on duty there, they are entitled to additional allowance [equivalent to 10 percent of their basic pay],” Balilo said.

Time flies even in a place like Pagasa, he said, adding that he was confident Mazo would do great on the island as an educator.

Like the job of Commodore Enrico Efren Evangelista, head of the Coast Guard district in Palawan, Mazo’s new assignment is also meant to “assert and bring attention to the country’s claim over [parts of] the Spratlys,” Balilo said.

Objective of school

On April 23, Evangelista and Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. signed an agreement for the deployment of Coast Guard teachers to Pagasa.

The signing of the agreement coincided with the 46th founding anniversary of the Coast Guard in Palawan.

Isorena and DepEd officials attended the event, held at Aziza Paradise Hotel in Puerto Princesa.

In 2012, Bito-onon opened the public school on Pagasa. Before that, students from the island had to travel to mainland Palawan for schooling.

In a statement, Evangelista said asserting the Philippines’ territorial claim in the Spratlys was “one of the objectives of Mayor Bito-onon when the school was built, and we’re supporting it.”

The Philippines occupies nine islands in the Spratly archipelago, all within the country’s 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone in the South China Sea that Manila calls the West Philippine Sea.

Six claimants

Aside from the Philippines, the Spratlys are also being claimed in whole or in part by China, Brunei, Malaysia, Vietnam and Taiwan.

Of the six claimants, only Brunei does not occupy any island in the archipelago, where islands, islets, reefs and atolls are believed to be sitting atop vast oil and gas reserves.

The Philippines maintains an undisclosed number of troops on eight islands and a shoal in the Spratlys.

Vietnam is present on 20 while China controls eight. Malaysia holds four and Taiwan maintains a garrison on Itu Abu, the largest island in the chain.

Extensive claim

China claims 90 percent of the 3.5-million-square-kilometer South China Sea, including waters near the shores of its neighbors.

The Philippines has challenged China’s extensive claim in an arbitration case it has filed in the United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea.

China has refused to take part in the proceedings but has been ordered by the tribunal to respond to the Philippine challenge by Dec. 15.

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TAGS: Cmdr. Armand Balilo, Department of Education, DepEd, Kalayaan town, Oliver Mazo, Pagasa Island, Philippine Coast Guard, Philippine Sea, Romblon State University, Spratly archipelago, Thitu Island, United Nations International Tribunal on the Law of the Sea
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