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PHL: Pag-asa school an exercise in sovereignty

June 27, 2012 8:35pm
The Philippines on Wednesday ignored superpower China’s opposition to a municipal preschool in the disputed Kalayaan Island Group, sending a clear message to Beijing that the move of local officials to develop the makeshift facility was an exercise in sovereignty.
 
The construction of a kindergarten school in Pag-asa Island, the seat of the Kalayaan municipality within the island group, is part of basic services that residents there should get, Foreign Affairs spokesman Raul Hernandez said in an interview with reporters.
 
“The Kalayaan Island Group, including Pag-asa Island, is an integral part of the territory of the Philippines,” Hernandez said. “It’s very clear that this group of islands is ours.”

Kindergarten is the first curriculum year level of the K to 12 basic education program the Department of Education began implementing this school year with the phase-in of universal kindergarten, Grade 1 and Grade 7 (to replace the old first year high school curriculum).
 
Pag-asa Elementary School is the initiative of the remote municipality of Kalayaan. The school held its first day of classes on June 18, Kalayaan town Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon told GMA News Online in a telephone interview.
 
Bito-onon said he was exercising his mandate to take care of the welfare of the children and families on the island. He saw no reason for China to issue a warning.

The Aquino administration supports the initiative of the municipality.

“They (residents of Kalayaan) are Filipinos. And we will provide them (education). The President has mentioned (that) no one should be left behind... I think it is an irresponsibility on our part if we do not provide services to our fellow Filipinos in that particular municipality,” presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda said in a briefing in Malacañang.



Pag-asa population: 222
 
China claims the South China Sea nearly in its entirety including areas that overlap with Philippine territory and the cluster of islands reefs and atolls further south called the Spratlys.
 
Other claimants are Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan. Except for Brunei, all claimants have stationed military troops in their claimed territories in the vast sea – said to be atop huge oil and gas deposits,
 
Pag-asa is the largest of eight Philippine-claimed islands in the area that Manila calls Kalayaan Island Group.
 
The 37-hectare Pag-asa is equipped with an airstrip, commercial communications tower, and power generators. It is inhabited mostly by soldiers and civilian settlers.
 
Pag-asa has a population of 222 based on the 2010 population census by the National Statistics Office.
 
Hernandez said Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon “is responsible for governing his municipality and to ensure that development and progress take place in his municipality.”
 
This includes putting up a school. “He has the right to do that as a mayor in the place or island which we consider ours,” according to the DFA official.
 
Apart from the five kindergarten pupils, there are four "salimpusa" or tag-along children who are not enrolled in the school, according to the Pag-asa mayor.

Bottom line is education
 
"The bottom line is children should be educated,” Bito-onon said. “They must learn how to read and write," he added, noting the school was inaugurated without fanfare.
 
"We just improvised (using) one of our buildings," the mayor said.
 
The decision was to start with kindergarten, but Bito-onon said they may open more grade levels next school year.
 
“Homogenous sila, hindi na mahirapan ang teacher na mag-isa lang," he added.
 
"Very passionate at medyo may sense ng patriotism," Bito-onon said, describing teacher Maria Teresa Buncag.
 
Buncag agreed to move with her family from Puerto Princesa to Pagasa Island, according to the mayor.
 
Bito-onon said the Department of Education may absorb the teacher in the future. For now, the local government is financing the school’s operations, including the teacher's salary, he added.
 
The school also received donations of school supplies, which will be used in their guided instructional program.
 
"Maraming mga materials, coloring books, paper... Just made an inventory, it's more than enough. Right now we can afford to fund the school," he said.
 
According to Bito-onon, the children are very excited about the new school. "Maaga pa, ginigising ang mga parents, gustong pumasok," he said.

Potential flashpoint
 
Beijing has warned Manila to “refrain from taking any measures that will complicate and exacerbate the current situation and affect peace and stability in the South China Sea."
 
Pushing through with the construction of the school violated a non-binding code of conduct, where both the Philippines and China are signatories along with other claimants, except Taiwan, it added.
 
Competing claims to the South China Sea have ignited violent confrontations in the past, sparking fears it could be Asia’s next potential flashpoint for international conflict.
 
The Philippines and China has been locked in a more than two-month territorial dispute over another Manila-claimed territory, called the Panatag (Scarborough)Shoal.
 
The maritime impasse temporarily ended on June 15 when President Aquino ordered two Philippines vessels to pull out of the face off with Chinese ships in the area due to bad weather.
 
Aquino said he would re-deploy Philippine vessels to the area if Chinese ships will remain there. —Michaela del Callar/Carmela Lapeña/VS/ELR/HS, GMA News
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