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Philippines ignores China: Pag-asa new school is in our land

PAG-ASA CLASS OF 2012 The Philippine flag flies in the breeze as Kalayaan town Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon (center) poses with the teacher, schoolchildren and their parents at the opening of Pag-asa Elementary School on a disputed West Philippine Sea island on June 15. AP/OFFICE OF KALAYAAN MUNICIPAL MAYOR

The Philippines on Wednesday brushed aside China’s warning against the operation of a public elementary school on Pag-asa Island in the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea).

In a statement, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) asserted that “the Kalayaan group of islands, which include Pag-asa, is an integral part of Philippine territory as declared in Republic Act No. 9522 and other relevant Philippine laws.”

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Malacañang, too, ignored China’s warning. Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said the government would help develop the school on Pag-asa.

The residents of the island “are Filipinos,” Lacierda said, so “we will provide for them.”

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China can say whatever it wants, Lacierda said, but it should not make Pag-asa an issue because “the municipality has been there” for a long time “and it’s never been questioned.”

Mayor cited

The DFA cited Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon for providing basic services to the residents of the island, including the establishment of a public  school, which opened on June 15.

Raul Hernandez, the DFA spokesperson, said “part of the responsibility of (Mayor Bito-onon) is to govern his municipality, ensure the progress and development of his locality, and provide basic services to his constituents, including putting up a school for kids in his area of jurisdiction.”

Bito-onon said China’s objection would not stop his education program. He said that, in fact, the municipal government would not only continue running the school, but also improve its facilities to make it more conducive to learning.

“I am only fulfilling my mandate to provide basic social services to my constituents,” Bito-onon told the Philippine Daily Inquirer Wednesday. “We are not affected by what China is protesting about.”

He said the school was a “modest” starter for the municipal government’s plan to set up a full-fledged elementary school on the island.

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Wanted donors

The municipal government is looking for donors to help build a four-classroom school, which, Bito-onon said, cannot be funded from the island’s share of the internal revenue allotment (IRA) from the national government.

“To fund that building from our IRA share will mean we have to do it through annual work installments because we have little funds,” Bito-onon said.  “That is why we are [asking] for donations.”

Education Secretary Armin Luistro on Wednesday said that his department was ready to support the Pag-asa school.

Funding sought

Bito-onon is requesting funding from the provincial government and the Department of Education to sustain the school’s operation and build more classrooms.

On Wednesday, he said the municipal government had received pledges and commitments from private individuals, mostly overseas Filipinos.

Bito-onon said China’s warnings was not even making the municipal government reconsider its decision to operate a school on the island.

“Let the DFA deal with China or any other claimant country for that matter,” he said. “We need to fulfill our obligations as a local government.”

School lauded

Luistro was glad that the island now had a public school. “We should be doing that,” he said. “One of my dreams is to visit Pag-asa one of these days.

Two party-list lawmakers on Wednesday cheered the opening of the public school on Pag-asa.

ACT Teachers Representative Antonio Tinio said the opening of the school would be “tremendous help in advancing the education of children in the disputed territory.”

Citizens’ Battle Against Corruption (Cibac) Representative Sherwin Tugna saw the opening of a school on Pag-asa as  “a continuous assertion of the Philippines’ sovereignty claim over the Kalayaan island group.”

Tinio said his group had proposed to build “a larger and permanent school building on the island” and he expected the government and private donors to chip in for teaching materials and supplies for the school.

“They need a bigger school because there is a small population there of several hundred, including children whose educational needs must be met,” Tinio said.

“There are also a handful of teachers who would benefit from having a permanent station on the island,” Tinio said. “This is apart from the intention of further strengthening our territorial claim on the area.”

Rival claims

Both China and the Philippines are claiming the Kalayaan group of islands, which are parts of the disputed Spratly chain of islands in the West Philippine Sea.

Though Kalayaan is just on the doorstep of the Philippines, China insists it has sovereignty over the island group and all of the Spratly archipelago.

The militant Bagong Alyansang Makabayan (Bayan) also found China’s warning out of place.

Bayan said China was “definitely in no position to be making such absurd demands on the Philippines.”

Beijing “must respect Philippine sovereignty and refrain from making threats,” said Bayan secretary general Renato Reyes Jr.

“The area being claimed by China already has a Filipino community and has been under Philippine control, being part of the town of Kalayaan in Palawan province,” Reyes said.

China’s ship at shoal

The Philippines and China are locked in a dispute over Scarborough Shoal, a resource-rich rock-and-coral formation north of the Spratlys where vessels from both countries had faced off from April 8 to June 15.

Bad weather broke the standoff on June 15. President Benigno Aquino called two government vessels home that night to get their crew out of danger as a typhoon approached the Philippines from the Pacific Ocean.

Despite a reported promise to do the same, China has kept its vessels at the shoal.

On June 18, President Aquino threatened to send the Philippine vessels back unless China removed its ships from the shoal.

China’s warning against the opening of the first school on Pag-asa Island came amid the two countries’ search for a peaceful solution of their dispute over Scarborough Shoal.

Home to about 100 Filipinos, Pag-asa Island has been under the Philippine government’s control since the 1970s, the DFA said.

It has a town hall, a health center, an airstrip and a naval station, among other infrastructure.

School inaugurated

Last week, the Kalayaan municipal government inaugurated Pag-asa Elementary School, which was built from an old multipurpose hall using secondhand construction materials.

The school opened on June 15, with only five kindergarten students.

A Philippine flag fluttered in the breeze from a flagpole in the schoolyard.

The school hired a teacher from Palawan, after convincing her to move her family to the island. Pag-asa is 527 kilometers  (285 nautical miles) west of Palawan, or a boat trip that could exceed a full day, depending on sea condition.

Bito-onon earlier told the Inquirer that the municipal government wanted Pag-asa children to go to school on the island instead of going to the mainland for education.

“Maybe in two months, we could open classes from Grade 1 to 3 if we can convince [the children] to return to the island in time before the first grading period,” Bito-onon said.

He said he was aware of the separation of families caused by children’s having to go to the mainland to get education. “That’s why, I thought it’s high time for us to have a schoolhouse here,” said. With reports from Christine O. Avendaño, Tarra Quismundo and Gil C. Cabacungan; and Redempto D. Anda, Inquirer Southern Luzon

Originally posted at 02:23 pm | Wednesday, June 27,  2012

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TAGS: Asia-Pacific, Bajo Masinloc, Benigno Aquino, China, Diplomacy, Eugenio Bito-onon, Features, Foreign affairs, Global Nation, Government, Kalayaan, Maritime Dispute, Mayor Eugenio Bito-on, Pag-asa, Pag-asa Elementary School, Palawan, Panatag Shoal, Philippines, Scarborough Shoal, sovereignty, Spartly Islands, Spratly Islands, West Philippine Sea
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