Cultural activist Carlos Celdran has a good thing going in his Facebook page “It’s no fun in Pagasa.” Started last April 20, the page calls on readers to donate various items, particularly books, that would help a tiny Filipino community ease the tedium of living on the farflung island in the crosshairs of powerful neighbors in the West Philippine Sea. “[They] are hungry for mental stimulation,” Celdran said in an e-mail interview with Inquirer.net.
It’s a creative way of harnessing social media toward educating the public on the Philippines’ Kalayaan Islands. Celdran’s noteworthy goal is “to educate Filipinos about issues of patrimony and sovereignty over our share of the Spratlys,” he said. “We also hope to show how we as citizens can get involved in strengthening these claims. We can keep these islands as Filipino through sustainable technology and creativity. It won’t take military action.”
Located 480 kilometers off the coast of Palawan, Pagasa is the largest of the islands that make up the Kalayaan islands (which are part of the Spratly chain that is also being claimed wholly or partly by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Brunei). It measures 32.7 hectares.
Barangay Pagasa is part of the fifth-class municipality of Kalayaan. While it has a political and military significance, it is also where, apart from soldiers, some 200 civilians live. The residents are mostly engaged in fishing as a means of livelihood. They plant some crops, and raise pigs, goats and chickens as well.
Among the first structures built on Pagasa was an airstrip over a kilometer long. Today, apart from the military outpost and the residents’ dwellings, there are, among other structures, a multipurpose hall, a clinic, a commercial communications tower—and a school. Through the efforts of Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon Jr., Pagasa Elementary School was established on June 15, 2012. Starting with only five students, it is a heartwarming symbol of the settlers’ commitment to stay. (Pagasa’s children usually had to travel to the mainland for their schooling.)
In 2012, the Department of Foreign Affairs acknowledged Bito-onon’s efforts to promote the wellbeing of Pagasa’s tiny community. In response, the mayor said: “I am only fulfilling my mandate to provide basic social services to my constituents.”
But Bito-onon also called for much-needed assistance from the public and private sectors to fund improvements in the school. To China’s taking offense over the establishment of the school on the island that it also claims, he responded with a metaphorical shrug: “Let the DFA deal with China, or any other claimant country for that matter. We need to fulfill our obligations as a local government.”
Celdran’s call for book donations (along with chessboards, fishing nets and solar lights) is intended to benefit the schoolchildren and also the other members of the community on Pagasa.
But so much more is needed. Celdran pointed out that the residents of Pagasa are barely surviving and need supplies as well as better infrastructure. In line with his aim of educating readers, he added that while the people of Pagasa are struggling to survive on the barest necessities, Malaysia and Vietnam have built tourist resorts on their claimed islands, and China—“the biggest bully of them all”—has poured billions of dollars into the steadily-growing Sansha City, Beijing’s controversial administrative post for the Spratlys.
Celdran’s call speaks to another, in fact fundamental, problem on Pagasa: boredom. The island is so remote that Bito-onon once said: “Some people can’t take it. They snap and begin talking to the flies or get drunk all the time. They get into fights while drinking.” Thus Celdran’s call for donors to send reading material, chessboards and the like to keep Pagasa’s people alert and occupied is both timely and urgent.
This is what we can do to help Pagasa, Celdran said. “Let the government take the hard line, let the Filipino people add the soft touches in keeping our islands complete as 7,107.”
While at it, spare a thought as well for the brave soldiers manning the good (but rusting) ship Sierra Madre on the Philippines’ Ayungin Shoal. They, too, desperately need distraction from the cruel routines of isolation.
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