POSTSCRIPT / March 23, 2000 / Thursday

By FEDERICO D. PASCUAL JR.

Philippine STAR Columnist

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Stop rebels before they gain territory, recognition

WE heard the commander-in-chief President Estrada say on radio yesterday that he had issued the order for our armed forces to go after rebels who have been wreaking havoc in Mindanao and making a mockery of the peace process.

We are 100 percent behind the President.

Our armed forces must not be held back any longer. While the flag they are sworn to defend to the death is being sullied, they sometimes hold their fire in deference to urong-sulong peace talks that are going around in endless circles.

While their frontmen talk peace kuno, rebels overrun civilian communities, mock our soldiers, destroy property and disrupt livelihood, kidnap innocent civilians – then they ask for a ceasefire so they can hold on to their expanded territory.

* * *

IF we don’t watch out, the outside world might start believing that the rebels in Mindanao are truly a legitimate liberation army with a definite territory, a viable government and popular support.

Their calling themselves an Islamic liberation front, and our government’s recognizing that status by formally negotiating with them, may confer on them legitimacy and thus condition the outside world to regard them as such.

Add the element of recognition by foreign powers – such as by Islamic sympathizers in the Middle East – and we may wake up one morning with a Bangsamoro state staring our own republic eyeball to eyeball and bargaining from a position of strength.

This early, those rebels must be denied territory, one of the crucial elements of a state. As President Estrada correctly says, the rebels should be hunted down if they refuse to give up their secessionist antics.

* * *

WE cannot allow rebels to control territory where they fly their own flag, maintain their own armed forces, run their own political affairs, operate their own justice system, teach school children a breakaway curriculum, dispatch envoys to foreign governments, and receive foreign aid and military advisers.

The Philippine flag must fly over every inch of ground in this republic. Our soldiers are ready to die fighting to see to that, but our politicians must not tie their arms.

Unless… deep in our hearts we know that the secessionist problem in Muslim Mindanao has been internationalized and that it has grown too big for us to handle.

* * *

BACK in the capital, we fear for Sister Christine Tan. It is not enough that she speaks the truth on the matter of Sweepstakes megafunds being funneled through the Holy Trinity of San Juan.

This is one fact of life that pure hearts who had joined the government or who must now tangle with grizzled politicians must learn early on.

We cringe seeing a propaganda blitz moving to demolish Sister Christine. Alone, with nothing but the truth and good faith in her heart, she is no match to the well-oiled machine that has revved up into action.

This is not EDSA 1986 where, by some miracle, one raises a rosary in fervent prayer and the tanks stop rolling.

We hope we’re wrong and that our fears are unfounded that Sister Christine’s story will be in tatters after the machine is done with her.

* * *

ANOTHER victim of cruel political circumstances is erstwhile Presidential Chief of Staff Aprodicio Laquian, who had to resign when his light remarks to the press the other day were misunderstood.

When asked how he coped with the post-midnight sessions of presidential drinking buddies where important decisions are reportedly made, Laquian said that since he was a teetotaler, he would be sober enough the morning after to sift through the spirited decisions.

His remarks, which he explained later as mere hyperbole made in jest, apparently did not register as such. His boss the President, for one, did not find them funny.

We cannot say that Laquian was also an innocent victim like Sister Christine. His impressive professional background failed to serve, and save, him.

* * *

IT’S unfortunate, but our flag carrier and our tourism department need not quarrel about who between them should yield in the campaign to bring in big-spending tourists. It’s not a question of yielding, but of building – together.

Also, successful tourism is not a simple matter of opening the skies and watching tourists fly in in droves. Without demand, airlines will not waste time and resources flying in even under an Open Skies policy.

* * *

THE first order of business is to build the destination. Have the tourism department and related entities focus on first creating a demand, and the issue of carriers and air traffic will become a happy problem.

A happy problem would be seeing tourists queuing at airline counters to get a plane seat to this must-visit destination. If our flag carriers cannot handle heavy tourist traffic, we can even be magnanimous with boorish Taiwanese airlines to help meet the demand for seats.

It is in this context that we would like to see the tourism department take the lead in developing tourism infrastructure and promoting inbound tourism. Before doing its homework, it is premature for the DoT to advocate an Open Skies policy.

* * *

SO, let’s look around. What do we have?

Beaches? There are beaches everywhere in the world where the sea touches land. The difference is that many of our beaches are unspoiled, meaning uncared for and lacking adequate facilities.

Sunsets? There are sunsets wherever the sun sets. But our sunset is more breathtaking because of pollution in the atmosphere? Maybe… but would a tourist come to Manila just to watch a bloody sunset?

Rise paddies dotted with work animals and tiny huts? They have the same rustic settings in many parts of Asia. Once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Why would a European fly on to Manila when he can savor all the scenes, and much more, in Bangkok?

Old churches? Assuming some tourists want to see such landmarks, how many are these tourists? How many of our churches are worth showing off? How do they compare with soaring cathedrals, golden mosques and religious antiquities elsewhere?

Night life? You mean, low life.

Friendly people? Bumenta na iyan!

* * *

IT’S really pathetic how our tourism infrastructure has been neglected despite our having a full-blown Cabinet-level department tending to it, despite the valiant efforts of career personnel, regional tourism offices and extension offices in key cities abroad.

The tourism secretary cries “Open skies!” as if that were the “Open sesame!” to fling open our gates to hordes of imaginary tourists beating a path to these parts.

If some airlines want to fly in with more and bigger aircraft, it’s not really to bring in legitimate tourists but to reinforce their poaching and carrying passengers from/to Manila to/from destinations beyond.

* * *

TAKE the case of Taiwanese airlines whose government is demanding more frequencies without reciprocal privilege for our flag carriers. If they want to fly to/from Manila, it is not really to bring Taiwanese tourists to the Philippines.

A few Taiwanese gamblers come to play in our casinos and businessmen cross over to talk business, but the bulk of the Taiwan traffic consists of returning overseas workers and balikbayans (from the US West Coast, for instance) and other Filipinos taking advantage of the cut-throat rates of China Airlines and EVA Airways.

Tourism is not the central issue in the Philippines-Taiwan tiff over air frequency. The debate is about generic air transportation. Our department of transportation and our civil aeronautics board, not the DoT, are the more appropriate agencies to involve.

* * *

THE tourism department should concentrate first on putting our house in order in preparation for the guests that, hopefully, could be lured in time to visit. Why quarrel over plane seats when we’re not even ready as a destination?

Let’s build up our tourism infrastructure first, then promote our country as a destination and we would have more than enough tourists to fight over.

Why dream of an ambitious tourism marketing program – or quarrel over plane seats — when we’re not even so sure about our touristic product?

* * *

(First published in the Philippine STAR of March 23, 2000)

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