Partitioning Palawan | Inquirer Opinion

Partitioning Palawan

/ 05:24 AM November 23, 2018

Why cut up Palawan?

That question is assuming greater urgency and curiosity as a heretofore obscure bill has wended its way in Congress and appears set to become law. On Monday, the Senate, by a vote of 14-1, passed House Bill No. 8055, which seeks to divvy up Palawan into three smaller provinces: Palawan del Sur, Palawan del Norte and Palawan Oriental.

Palawan’s vast swath of land faces the South China Sea, and is considered the Philippines’ last ecological frontier for its rich biodiversity. The municipality of Kalayaan, which has jurisdiction over the Philippine-claimed features in the resource-rich Spratly Islands, will be part of Palawan del Sur.


In sponsoring the measure, Sen. Sonny Angara said the country’s biggest island province—crisscrossed by 1,800 islands, with an area of some 17,000 square kilometers of land, an economy that grows 7 percent every year and a population of 1.1 million—is ripe for a breakup. It is so vast that “it can fit” five Batangas provinces, the senator said, in perhaps a dead giveaway of the overriding political reason for the proposal.


Stripped of legislative niceties, the measure reeks of gerrymandering, which, in chopping up the province into smaller fiefdoms, will only serve the interests of local proponents intent on diversifying the political playground and affording many more aspirants greater opportunity for public office and power. The proponents claim it will ensure better governance and faster delivery of services to far-flung areas, but the sprawl of the proposed setup is telling: Once the bill is signed into law by President Duterte and the proposal is approved via a referendum in 2020, it will open up seats for three governors, three vice governors and 30 provincial board members, as well as additional seats for congressional representatives.

The idea was first broached in 2007 by then Palawan Vice Gov. David Ponce de Leon, but for many years it failed to make headway in Congress. This time, the House of Representatives was uncharacteristically quick on the draw, passing the measure on final reading in August this year, a mere five months after it was filed by Palawan’s three lawmakers, and despite complaints that the process skirted public consultations with nongovernment and people’s organizations in the province.

“We were blindsided by how fast this proposal came into being, without consulting the people, excluding Puerto Princesa,” said Save Palawan Movement campaigner Cynthia Sumagaysay-Del Rosario. (Puerto Princesa City has opted out of the proposed breakup lest it be downgraded into either a component city or a municipality from its present status as a charter city.)

Other than political opportunism, there is a greater danger in the move to cut up Palawan: It may play into China’s hands. The Philippines’ superpower neighbor, which has transformed the Philippine islands it had seized in the South China Sea into military outposts bristling with runways, radars and missiles, would welcome the breakup of the province and use it to its advantage, warned international political risk analyst Anders Corr. Palawan is home to the Antonio Bautista Air Base, which has been the launching pad of joint US-Philippine military exercises in recent years meant to push back against China’s aggression in the region.

“If China wants a military base in Palawan, mining rights or fishing rights, after the breakup it would have multiple officials with whom it can negotiate or bribe, playing one against the other,” said Corr. Palawan’s smaller LGUs would be “vulnerable to influence, infiltration or even takeover by a China that is increasingly made to feel welcome in Manila.”

This appears to be not the usual subdivision of territory, but one that has “deep geopolitical repercussions,” said Sen. Risa Hontiveros, the only senator who voted against HB 8055. “Instead of having to face a single, strong provincial government which can mobilize the entire island in its own defenses, China will now have the opportunity to infiltrate and influence smaller government units.”


Why is there no greater public outcry over this seeming rush to break up the Philippines’ strategic frontier without any transparent, detailed scrutiny of its possible far-reaching national security implications, or even adequate consultations with affected constituencies?

Something’s afoot, and if the Filipino public isn’t vigilant, it’s not just Palawan that may end up grossly disadvantaged.

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TAGS: opinion, palawan, Philippines

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