ARAW NG KALAYAAN | An island awaits genuine freedom -- from want
The online news portal of TV5

PUERTO PRINCESA CITY - If a Chinese frigate fired a rocket at the rusting, World War II- era Philippine Navy vessel BRP Sierra Madre stuck like a barricade on the Philippine-held Ayungin Reef in the West Philippine Sea, the nearby island of Pag-asa or even the nearest mainland Palawan town of Quezon would not hear a thing. Not even the slightest noise.

This scenario underscores, to the mayor of the Philippines’ Kalayaan Island Group--symbol of its claim in the West Philippine Sea—the need to ensure that amid reports of continuing aggression by other claimant countries, residents of the isles must be afforded every means to live in peace and develop the resources in the area.

Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr. is no stranger to the tension that has hounded the KIG, since the Spratlys Group of Islands that China claims wholly became a flashpoint in maritime conflict in the region.

Still, he would rather dwell on what can be done to cement the Philippine stake: for starters, by transforming the biggest island Pag-asa into a prosperous community, much like what Vietnam and China have done to other islands they occupied in the Spratlys.

The past two years Mayor Bito-onon, in between monitoring and reporting aggression by fishing or military boats of other claimants, has lobbied Manila and private groups to invest in a comprehensive development plan for Pag-asa.

While Bito-onon pursues his socioeconomic blueprint, the Armed Forces of the Philippines is in constant preparation for the worst—armed conflict—even as soldiers scattered around the reefs and atolls in the KIG live in peace in this last frontier of sorts.

According to a senior military source, given a scenario where information reaches the Armed Forces of, for example, a Chinese frigate launching a rocket at the rusting, World War II-era BRP Sierra Madre that the military has used as some sort of barricade at the entrance to Ayungin Reef, the Western Command will await a guidance order from higher ups before they set in motion their courses of action.

“If the Government or the People say we will fight, given whatever we have at hand, we will fight. Besides, it is the people who will decide if we will go for war or not”, the source said.

War may be impossible, but...

Bito-onon brushes off the idea that armed conflict is inevitable in the dispute between the Philippines and other claimant countries. “I still believe that the conflict between claimant countries will be resolved peacefully. Hindi na natin kailangan umabot sa giyera [We don’t have to come to that, a war],” Bito-onon said.

Still, said another source, the disconnect between official Beijing pronouncements and what the Chinese military is doing on the ground can be quite alarming.

Last week, for instance. influential Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, Chief of Staff of the People’s Liberation Army declared at the Asia Security Summit Shangri-la Dialogue that China intends to peacefully resolve the conflict with other claimant countries. As he was declaring this, Philippine authorities were investigating the aggressive action by Chinese vessels off Ayungin Reef (international name: Second Thomas Shoal); and media was reporting stepped-up activity indicating plans for permanent structures in the Panatag Shoal area off Western Luzon, where a standoff between China and the Philippine Navy started in April 2012.

A war may never break out. But the rising tension between the Philippines and other countries laying claims over some parts of the Spratly islands is forcing authorities to allot millions of pesos, as seen posted on the walls of the Engineering and Municipal Planning Office of the Municipality of Kalayaan in their liaison office in Puerto Princesa, Palawan.

As of posting, P12 million worth of infrastructure projects, to be funded by the local government’s Internal Revenue Allotment, are pending.

Even when carried out, that is a puny investment in an area where various expert estimates put the potential resources in terms of energy sources and biodiversity at billions of pesos.

Worse, among the development strategies laid out by the local government of Kalayaan, the Infrastructure and Utilities Development phase is having a major setback, specifically with tensions looming in the West Philippine Sea.

“In terms of Institutional Development and delivery of basic social services, we can handle that effectively. But we are hobbled in terms of Infrastructure because of the conflict and there is a domino effect on overall economic development,” explains Bito-onon, speaking partly in Filipino.

The mayor cites as example the construction of the first school on the disputed island. “When the school opened last year, it was the first time after 30 years that Pag-asa island had a school.

But China protested it as an infringement of its sovereignty over the island. How can one classroom with seven elementary students infringe their sovereignty? Well, what more if we start erecting other buildings, say, even just mere [fishermen’s] shelters on some of the islands?” the mayor wondered aloud.

The P40-million annual IRA for Kalayaan is already small as it is, given the huge development challenge, but over half of this goes to the salaries of the municipal employees and the remainder is not enough for operational expenses. Meanwhile, Bito-onon can only hold off until the government can shell out funds for them or he must look for other funds himself.

Too much ‘freedom’-- to loot -- in Kalayaan

Among the development projects Bito-onon wanted to pursue is a Mari-culture or sea farming project in a reef northwest of Pag-asa Island. But the presence and activities of the neighboring countries makes it impossible.

“During typhoons, we usually dock on that reef because it has a natural canal at its center. It’s a very good location for a sea farm.” However, since the Filipinos could not move quickly enough, the more aggressive neighbors have practically hollowed out parts of the reef, he noted.

He also confirmed the report that Chinese vessels are illegally and unsustainably harvesting giant clams and corals from Ayungin reef.

“Yes, what they’re doing is prohibited. But what can we do? Who can enforce the law? And whose law are we going to impose in the first place? Eh, hindi pa nga malinaw kung kanino talaga ang mga isla,” he added.

Beth Maclang of the Palawan NGO Network cites the billions of pesos worth of marine resources lost in illegal activities.

“As per the data from the Department of Energy, we are losing around 50 billion pesos a year to illegal activities like poaching, illegal fishing and harvesting of corals. This is alarming, especially here in Palawan where we are surrounded by vast seas that we can barely guard,” says Maclang.

Data from the Palawan Council for Sustainable Development showed 91 cases of illegal poaching by foreigners have been recorded from March 1995 up to April this year. Half, or 629 out of 1129 poachers caught, were Chinese. 

Pag-asa being left behind

On his laptop computer, Bito-onon is updated with news clippings and pictures of the development unfolding in islands occupied by the Philippines’ more aggressive  neighbors. He also takes time to verify this and monitor the satellite images from Google Earth.

But the mayor can’t help but envy them. “Consider this: “from scratch, they have transformed their islands to such remarkable places now. It evokes envy in me, but also serves as inspiration to me. If they can do it, why can’t we?” he said.

Bito-onon’s lament is understandable, being a strategist himself. He served as the municipal planning officer of Kalayaan before he assumed his first term as Mayor in 2010. Bito-onon admits he wanted to replicate even just a fraction of the developments made by other countries in our islands.

Bito-onon recalled how he reacted and shared his seemingly impossible dream for Kalayaan, when he was once summoned by a ranking government official whom he refused to name.

“I was asked what is my plan for Kalayaan. I just told him, ‘sir, I’m not particularly intelligent. I’m new in politics and I may never be the best mayor Kalayaan ever had. Even as a student, I wasn’t that outstanding. But even in class you occasionally turn to your brighter classmates to look for the best answer.’ Then I showed him my materials on the remarkable developments of other countries,” he recalled.

For the Kalayaan chain, Bito-onon dreams of having a sheltered harbor on the biggest island, Pag-asa. He even photo-shopped a map of the island, to superimpose an image of a sheltered harbor on the spot where he wanted it erected.

“I’m certain that our having a sheltered port will boost the livelihood of fishers and boost tourism because that port will provide sanctuary to our vessels,” he explains.

As of October 2012, Bito-onon said they had formulated the Terms of References for the project together with the Department of Transportation and Communications. When the development plan is done, he will be off to look for funds.

Bito-onon added he has already requested P250 million from DOTC for this project.

Aside from a harbor, Bito-onon also prays that the overdue repair of the Rancudo Airstrip will start very soon.

According to him, parts of the airstrip have been washed out by sea water, making it impossible for some types of aircraft to land on the island.

Notwithstanding the pronouncements-- during the 40thAnniversary of the 570th Composite Tactical Wing of the Philippine Air Force last March--by Lt. Gen. Lauro Catalino dela Cruz that he will expedite the repairs of the airstrip early next year, the PAF Wing in Palawan has been mum on the matter. [WATCH RELATED VIDEO OF MAYOR BITO-ONON BELOW] 

Hope in Freedomland

When asked if he ever felt neglected by the National Government, Bito-onon did not give a yes or a no for an answer. Instead, he said he understands where the National Government is coming from.

“I recognize the fact that our country is resource-strapped and we have a lot of internal problems,” he said, citing the insurgency in parts of the country.“The government understandably spends for these places because without peace, we cannot have development,” he added.

Still, he thinks the modernization of the Armed Forces will contribute a lot in the development of the KIG, mainly because part of the bonanza will be for the services of the AFP, specifically in security and transportation.

Wescom for its part has vowed to continue support for the development projects in Kalayaan, as part of its mandate in its area of responsibility.

And, although he hasn’t met Bito-onon personally, Palawan’s Governor-Elect Jose Chavez Alvarez has promised to support the development of Kalayaan the best way he can.

In a text message to, Alvarez stressed that, “Kalayaan is an integral part of the province."

"What we will deliver in other municipalities, ibibigay din natin sa Kalayaan. At bilang pinaka-bata sa lahat ng munisipyo, gagabayan natin ang Kalayaan hanggang sa magkaroon ng development sa isla [We will give to Kalayaan what we give to other municipalities. And being the youngest of the towns, we will give it special attention as it strives to attain full development.]," said Alvarez. 

With all these, Bito-onon still believes that peace and cooperation among other countries laying claim to the Spratlys is the primary catalyst for the development of Kalayaan.

“The most important thing is to settle the diplomatic row between claimant countries. It’s important to have cooperation and avoid agitation, military aggression and confrontation in order to avert war. If war breaks out, we will all be losers here,” he said.

Until mutual cooperation and harmonious coexistence between claimant countries becomes possible in the West Philippine Sea, Bito-onon believes his dream will remain elusive.

Still, he vows to never tire of dreaming for a better Kalayaan—one truly living up to its name, not only in flying the symbols of independence, but truly free from want and deprivation. With the current situation in the West Philippine Sea, the mayor concedes he can only do so much.


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