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At Large

The Sabah card

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I don’t know what it is exactly that Sultan Jamalul Kiram III hopes to accomplish by telling his followers to “stay put” in Lahad Datu in Sabah to “reclaim their ancestral homeland.”

Despite appeals by the governments of both the Philippines and Malaysia, which has formal jurisdiction over Sabah even if there is a continuing Philippine claim on behalf of the Sultanate of Sulu, for them to leave the island and return home, the Sultan said his followers are staying put.

But what do they want to happen? The “visitors,” whose number ranges from 100 to 300, are surrounded by Malaysian troops, their way to the capital of Kota Kinabalu hampered by roadblocks and checkpoints. If their presence in Sabah is meant as a bid for a bargaining process, then they are certainly playing a game of brinkmanship with the not-so-far-fetched possibility of loss of lives.

Certainly, the Sabah excursion throws a spanner in the works of the peace process in Mindanao, which had seemed well on its way to fulfillment.

The admission by MNLF chair Nur Misuari that a good number of the delegation to Sabah was made up of MNLF fighters, seems to firm up the suspicions of many that the trip to Sabah is another bid for attention, now that the government’s focus has been trained on the Maguindanao-led MILF.

* * *

IF THIS is so, then the “Sabah card” strikes me as a pathetic—and dangerous—attempt to “internationalize” the settling of the Mindanao conflict.

It’s irresponsible at best, and futile, too. I don’t think Malaysia will continue to take such a sanguine attitude toward any attempt to rekindle the Sabah claim, and the United Nations doesn’t seem to feel a bit of urgency to settle it anytime soon.

Hopes for “peace in Mindanao” are so high these days. What a sad thing it would be if the impatience of a few old men should dash those hopes to smithereens.

* * *

TARLAC is best known, at least among road travelers from Metro Manila, as a province you pass through on the way to better-known destinations up north, like Baguio, La Union or Pangasinan.

As a child, while the family made one of its regular trips to my mother’s hometown of Alaminos in Pangasinan, I knew Tarlac mainly for the “picnic stop” near Capas, or for any of the eateries on MacArthur Highway where we would stop for lunch. Later, after Hacienda Luisita put up a mall near its entrance in the 1980s, we marked the halfway mark of our long road trip by stopping at any of the restaurants there: Max’s Fried Chicken, Pancake House or McDonald’s.

Today, the ride to Pangasinan, I’m told, has been considerably shortened by new expressways, although I would guess that the fleeting glimpse we usually got of Tarlac would have been rendered nearly unremarkable.

So maybe it’s just right that Tarlac Gov. Vic Yap, who will be running for his third term in the May elections, guested at the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel yesterday to pitch, not his candidacy, but the tourist attractions of his province. Tourism, he says, has been the primary thrust of his administration and a promising source of revenue for Tarlac.

While provinces to the north have the cool clime in the mountain regions or wide swaths of beaches to draw tourists, Tarlac is landlocked and not exactly famous for its natural attractions. While the adjacent province of Pampanga has seemed to corner the market for regional culinary specialties and handicraft (think parol and wooden furniture), Tarlac is mainly known for Hacienda Luisita and its sugar, and for producing what Yap describes as “icons of democracy” in Ninoy and Cory, and of course their son, Noynoy.

* * *

BUT soon, says the governor, Tarlac may be known as well for its natural attractions, its crafts, resorts and nature trails, as well as for its “industrious people” who, he says, are the province’s main resource.

One other natural asset of Tarlac, says Yap, is its location, which is near enough to Metro Manila to make day trips possible. Its size is likewise convenient, for as he says “any town in Tarlac is just 30 minutes away from the capital,” Tarlac City.

These days, Tarlac is best known for such attractions as a monastery and shrine up in the hills; the “Paradise Ranch” which provides leisure facilities like swimming pools and cottages and draws more than 100,000 tourists a year; waterfalls and hot springs; and the beginnings of “eco-adventure” trails through Aeta country leading to the crater of Mount Pinatubo, which technically lies in neighboring Zambales province.

The provincial government, says Yap, has invested in creating roads and paths to various attractions, and building a network of home-stay cottages, restrooms, campsites and other facilities for the intrepid traveler. At the same time, they hope to organize Aeta communities to serve as guides and workers in the different tourist areas, as well as uplift the economic and social status of the tribes.

Unlike other areas of the country which are naturally forested, the most common flora in Tarlac are reeds (tarlac) or cogon, from which the province got its name. A massive reforestation program was launched in decades past and the governor says he is encouraging the planting of the fast-growing ipil trees which mountainfolk harvest for firewood and charcoal.

This is so that older-growth trees and hardier hardwood will be spared from premature harvesting, providing a balance between the exigencies of today and the longer-term needs of tomorrow.

Yap shares the same mindset, replying, when asked if he doesn’t mind that his successor will probably reap the success of the seeds he has been planting, that “I don’t mind, we’re doing this for Tarlac’s long-term future anyway.”


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