POSTSCRIPT / April 9, 2017 / Sunday


Opinion Columnist

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Visit to Pagasa is an inspired move

THE PLAN of President Rodrigo Duterte to visit the remote island of Pagasa in the disputed Spratly Group off Palawan promises to be a most dramatic coup – especially if he goes there on June 12, Independence Day.

If there will be logistical, weather or security problems, the more reason the strong-willed President should insist on visiting the Filipino community thriving under difficult conditions in that far-flung island-barangay with the Philippine flag flying over it.

Pagasa is the key feature of the seven islands and three reefs collectively called the Kalayaan (Freedom) Group that the Philippines occupies or controls in the disputed Spratlys northwest of Palawan.

With a population of 184 in 2015 and an annual budget of P47 million, Kalayaan is a fifth-class town, with Pagasa island as seat of the municipal government.

There are many reasons why President Duterte should set foot officially on Pagasa in time for Independence Day. Such a historic act will:

1. Serve notice to the world, including China that has expressed displeasure with the planned visit, that the Commander-in-Chief and the entire nation behind him reaffirm Philippine occupation and control over Kalayaan and are ready to defend this remotest corner of the sovereign territory.

2. Alert the United States that it should be ready anytime to make good its security commitments, with dispatch and without reservation, under its 1951 Mutual Defense Treaty with its friend and ally the Philippines.

3. Remind China that while its neighbor the Philippines under President Duterte has leaned over backward in searching for a mutually acceptable solution to bilateral irritants, including territorial disputes, its national security and territorial integrity are non-negotiable.

The Philippines should show unmistakable physical presence at least in the isles, reefs and other features in the mineral resource-rich Spratlys before its meeting with China in May to finalize a Code of Conduct that will help in the peaceful resolution of bilateral territorial disputes.

The ensuing negotiations all around will entail consummate diplomatic skills as other fellow members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (as well as China and Taiwan) are also claimants of some of the features in the Spratlys, among other areas.

Hovering above the claimants is the United Nations, under whose aegis the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea was negotiated, signed and ratified.

The Philippines must stand by its commitments under the UNCLOS, especially after it won last year a favorable award in its arbitration case challenging the over-reaching and illegal encroachment of China on surrounding maritime areas.

Tremendous pressure falls upon Mr. Duterte since Manila happens to be the host and chairman in this year’s 50thanniversary summit of the 10-member ASEAN.

• Visit to Pagasa has PR implications

A VISIT to Pagasa will convey with impact the message of President Duterte about his looking after the needs of the most disadvantaged communities and the military contingent keeping watch over the threatened frontiers of the archipelago.

With this one act, the President may nip the growing impression that he seems to be succumbing to China’s blandishments, including its promised multimillion-dollar package of investments, infrastructure, trade, grants and easy loans.

Like the missile attack on Syria last Friday ordered by US President Donald Trump that has distracted attention from his suspected Russian connections, President Duterte’s flying visit to Kalayaan will push to the back burner some of the negative issues that have been bugging him lately.

The latest surveys have Mr. Duterte’s satisfaction and trust ratings going down in the first quarter on issues related to the killing of many drug suspects, the alleged corruption among officials close to him, and his perceived cozying up to China.

The adroit handling of the public relations effects of a physically challenging presidential visit to Pagasa/Kalayaan could help distract public focus and possibly arrest the downtrend in his ratings.

In May 1956, Filipino adventurer Tomas Cloma, then operator of a fishing firm and director of the Philippine Maritime Institute, discovered the islands together with his brothers and a crew. He founded on the biggest island the town of Kalayaan.

The features in the Kalayaan Group are Pagasa (also known as Thitu Island), 37.2 hectares; Likas (West York), 18.6 hectares; Parola (Northeast Cay), 12.7 hectares; Lawak (Nanshan Island), 7.93 hectares; Kota (Laoita Island), 6.45 hectares; Patag (Flat Island), .57 hectares; Panata (Lankiam Cay), .44 hectares; Rizal (Commodore Reef); Balagtas (Irving Reef); and Ayungin (Second Thomas Shoal).

Philippine troops were first sent to the Spratlys in 1968 and Kalayaan was incorporated into Palawan in April 1972. On June 11, 1978, then President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree No.1596 formally annexing the Kalayaan Group.

President Duterte has ordered the beefing up of the security of Pagasa, and the improvement of structures there, including its gravelly landing strip, the five-bed lying-in clinic, and a school building. Basic amenities, such as power generators and water-purifying equipment will be brought in.

• Palm Sunday shows man’s fickleness

PALM Sunday today is just five short days to Good Friday. Indeed, time is fleeting and people are fickle.

In less than a week, the crowd waving palm fronds and other token of love and welcome to Christ was replaced by a lynch mob crying “Crucify him!” and then driving the innocent victim up to Calvary for an excruciating death on the cross.

The triumphal Sunday entry to Jerusalem was eclipsed fast by a seeming Friday defeat at Golgotha.

One corollary lesson we can draw from man’s fickleness is that fame and fortune, political power and earthly riches are temporal accidents of our transitory sojourn on earth.

(First published in the Philippine STAR of April 9, 2017)

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