Tag Archive: Palawan

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Plans to turn Philippine-occupied features on the disputed Spratly Islands have been postponed for at least a year as these coincided with the election season, the territories’ mayor said Thursday.

Eugenio Bito-onon, mayor of Kalayaan town under Palawan province, said the tourism campaign supposed to start this year will “most probably” be launched in 2017, after the new administration has taken over.

Representatives of the Department of Tourism (DoT) were supposed to assess the biggest Philippine-occupied feature, Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island, two weeks ago, but cancelled the visit, he said.

“Kinancel, partly because of election… Naabutan kasi ng election ‘yung Senate bill. So after the election ire-refile uli, a new start, pero after that tag-ulan na ‘yun, so most probably 2017 na [ang tourism campaign],” Bito-onon said.

Bito-onon, who himself is running this year for another term as Kalayaan mayor, was referring to the bill filed by Senator Sonny Angara which aims to declare the Pag-Asa Island cluster as an “eco-tourism destination and protected area.”

The bill, which also covers Parola (Northeast Cay), Kota (Loaita), and Panata (Lankiam Cay) islands, entails a call for funding from the DoT.

Overtures for making Kalayaan a tourism attraction were renewed in the past few years, with an eye at further cementing the Philippines’ claim to the islands, reefs, and atolls comprising the town.

These came amid China’s buildup of artificial islands and structures in nearby features, of which some were said to have been opened to tourists recently.

Along calls for tourism in Kalayaan were plans by the national government to repair the deteriorating Rancudo Air Field on Pag-Asa and building a jetty there.

Both construction plans reached bidding stage, but were shelved as the government wants to maintain “moral high ground” in the case filed against China at the United Nations’ International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea (ITLOS).

ITLOS is expected to decide on the case this year, but Bito-onon said this was not a factor in the tourism drive’s delay.

“It’s more due to election,” he said.

Philippine election laws prohibit almost all public works and funding, especially during campaign period.

“Paano mo naman sisimulan ‘yung project kung walang pondo?” Bito-onon said.

Despite this, Bito-onon said he remains hopeful that the tourism project would still move forward.

He said the local government of Kalayaan had already pushed through with its acquisition of a steel-hulled boat, a project aimed at aiding both residents and soon-to-be tourists.

The project has been bidded out and the 22-meter boat worth P10.6 million is expected to be delivered this September, he said.

“This will be used for the safety of travelers,” as well as rescue operations and bringing food, water, and other supplies for residents in times of emergency, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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Outgoing Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang said additional troops have been deployed to Batanes to help prevent intrusions, and suggested that a naval base be built there.

“The next na kailangan i-develop natin, maghanap tayo ng magandang naval base, o i-develop natin na naval base, dun sa Batanes,” Catapang said in an interview by state-run television PTV-4.

The military chief said he has already told the Navy about the plan, which should be implemented after building the naval base in Oyster Bay, Palawan.

The base being built in Oyster Bay is envisioned to guard against intrusions in the West Philippine Sea, where China is reclaiming and building structures on reefs. The planned facility in Batanes should guard against poachers, usually from Taiwan.

“I think this year they will ask for funding,” Catapang said.

Catapang made the remarks as he revealed that an additional platoon of Navy personnel have been sent to Batanes, where Filipino and Taiwanese coast guard members recently figured in standoffs.

“It’s the marching order of the President to also look into that area,” he said.

Navy chief Vice Admiral Jesus Milan, for his part, said forces in Batanes were increased “to secure mission-essential facilities being used for monitoring activities in the maritime domain.”

Navy personnel there are also tasked to plan for “improvements,” including the development of areas where boats can be docked, Millan told reporters by phone.

According to Millan, the Navy currently has no base in Batanes and sailors assigned there are only staying at offices of other government agencies.

Meanwhile, the Navy chief said more sailors were also deployed to Zambales and other “strategic areas” around the country to prevent the entry of poachers.

“Increasing ang poaching activities so we need to improve on our system and procedures… Ang problema lang, wala nga tayong pera to support the modernization of facilities,” he said. (John Roson)

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Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island. 2008 photo by author.

Residents in Pag-Asa (Thitu) Island have started promoting the island as a tourist destination amid tension among countries claiming the Kalayaan (Spratly) Island Group in the West Philippine Sea.

Vice Admiral Alexander Lopez, chief of the Armed Forces’ Western Command, confirmed that the tourism campaign has started albeit at a small scale, and said the military stands ready to help.

“We can help organize tour packages,” Lopez told reporters in Puerto Princesa City, Palawan.

Lopez made the remark after visiting Pag-Asa Island with Armed Forces chief General Gregorio Pio Catapang, other military officials, and reporters last Monday.

During the visit, reporters saw some residents of Pag-Asa — where only fish was peddled before — selling souvenir shirts promoting the island as a tourist spot.

White shirts printed with beaches, starfishes, aerial pictures of Pag-Asa, and other Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratlys are being sold at the Kalayaan municipal hall for P280.

One resident also makes “tuba” (coconut wine) and offers this for P75 a liter to visitors.

Such merchandise were not seen on the island before, until China boosted its presence in the West Philippine Sea.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. Photo by author.

Reclamation and construction on China-held Subi Reef as seen from Pag-Asa. 2015 photo by author.

Chinese warships and Coast Guard vessels are frequently seen in the disputed waters while construction and reclamation works are ongoing in China-held features including Subi (Zamora) Reef, which is only about 25 kilometers from Pag-Asa.

Residents said they have also been seeing Vietnamese fishing vessels straying near Pag-Asa — particularly at a reef to the island’s east and a sandbar to the north — and carry out dynamite fishing.

Lopez said the military cannot “actually escort” tourists to Pag-Asa because that’s not in its mandate, though helping arrange tours is allowable.

In his visit, Catapang said the military will “reinforce” tourism efforts, though securing visitors would be a joint effort with Coast Guard and local government agencies because Pag-Asa is in “internal waters.”

Tours could be extended to the other Philippine-occupied islands Patag (Flat), Kota (Loaita), Panata (Lankiam), Lawak (Nanshan), Likas (West York), and even Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, he added.

Kalayaan Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said the tourism campaign will go full scale “next year” after the town buys a 25-meter steel-hulled boat for P10 million.

The Pag-Asa airstrip's western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The Pag-Asa airstrip’s western edge. 2015 photo by author.

The boat project, which is aimed at ferrying visitors from a jump-off station from mainland Palawan, comes while the government has yet to repair the airstrip on Pag-Asa.

A chunk of the 1.3-kilometer airstrip’s western edge has eroded into the sea, though small aircraft and military planes can still land.

A “pasalubong” (souvenir) shop and lodge will also be opened on Pag-Asa to cater to tourists, Bito-onon said. (John Roson)

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A number of projects to modernize the Armed Forces may be delayed because of the Supreme Court’s issuance of a temporary restraining order (TRO) on part of the government’s use of funds from the Malampaya natural gas project, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said.

“Maaring maka-delay kasi marami tayong mga projects na acquisition of assets and equipment [involving funds from Malampaya],” Gazmin said in a press briefing Wednesday.

Gazmin did not specify what the projects were, but said those that would use funds from Malampaya are “for the protection” of the natural gas project, he said.

In November 2013, the Department of National Defense bidded out projects to build a pier, harbor, and support facilities in Oyster Bay, Palawan.

The projects, worth a total of P313.614 million, were set to use the Department of Energy’s capital outlay, according to the DND’s bid announcement.

The DOE’s capital outlay comprises funds from the Malampaya gas project, among others.

The Supreme Court issued the TRO last September. (John Roson)

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Authorities drove away a Vietnamese fishing vessel after spotting it near the Tubbataha Reef natural park in Palawan on Friday night, the military said Saturday.

The 50- to 60-tonner vessel was observed to be flying a Philippine flag when it was spotted at the reef’s vicinity around 10 p.m., Armed Forces Western Command spokeswoman 1Lt. Cherryl Tindog said, citing a report from the Tubbataha Management Office.

“Accordingly, pinaalis din agad po ng mga park rangers natin doon… Nagkaroon ng pursuit up to 2 nautical miles northeast of the park’s boundaries pero di na tinuloy ang paghabol dahil masama ang kundisyon ng dagat that time,” Tindog said in a text message.

Some of the park rangers are Navy personnel, she added.

Members of the Naval Forces West were sent to the reef Saturday to get more information on the Vietnamese vessel, Tindog said.

It was the third time for a foreign vessel to be spotted at the Tubbataha Reef this year.

On April 8, a Chinese fishing vessel ran aground at the reef and was discovered to be carrying hundreds of dead pangolins.

On Jan. 17, the US Navy minesweeper USS Guardian also ran aground at the reef and was removed only after a month. (John Roson)

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Chinese Ambassador Ma Ke Qing speaking with Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin on the sidelines of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

Chinese Ambassador Ma Ke Qing speaking with Defense Sec. Voltaire Gazmin on the sidelines of the International Day of UN Peacekeepers in Camp Aguinaldo, Quezon City.

China is concerned that the Philippines will build a structure on Ayungin Shoal and said it is monitoring the latter’s movements in the area, Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin said Wednesday.

Gazmin made the remark after speaking with Chinese Ambassador Ma Keqing on the sidelines of the International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers in Camp Aguinaldo.

“Ang sabi niya (Ma) ay mino-monitor nila ‘yung barko nating nandudoon, kung magtatayo tayo ng bagong structure,” Gazmin told reporters.

Earlier, Ma was seen seeking an audience with Gazmin, who ushered her into a corner where they spoke for about 10 minutes.

“They were concerned about the Philippines coming up with structures, additional structures in Ayungin Shoal. I told her (Ma) that we are moving towards Ayungin Shoal only to bring provisions of food and water for the soldiers who are there,” Gazmin said.

Photo released by the AFP Western Command last November shows some of the Filipino troops on board the grounded BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as their detachment at Ayungin Shoal. The troops were waving goodbye to then Wescom chief Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, who visited the nine Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratly Islands last November, before he retired last April.

Photo released by the AFP Western Command last November shows some of the Filipino troops on board the grounded BRP Sierra Madre, which serves as their detachment at Ayungin Shoal. The troops were waving goodbye to then Wescom chief Lt. Gen. Juancho Sabban, who visited the nine Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratly Islands last November, before he retired last April.

Gazmin was referring to Marine soldiers on the BRP Sierra Madre, which now serves as a detachment after being grounded in 1999 at Ayungin, located 110 to 120 nautical miles from Rizal, Palawan.

Two Chinese Maritime Surveillance vessels are still at the shoal as of Wednesday, Col. Edgard Arevalo, the Navy’s spokesman on the West Philippine Sea, said in a phone interview.

“Ang threat is always there, always there, but we have some protocols like the avoidance of dangerous maneuvers, avoidance of confrontational moves, so right now it’s holding,” Gazmin said.

Ma, in a separate interview at Camp Aguinaldo, only told reporters that she and Gazmin discussed “cooperation and very good exchanges” between China and the Philippines.

“We talked about the balanced relations, China is ready to develop cooperation and very good exchanges between the two sides because this year is the year of friendly exchanges between us,” the Chinese envoy said.

But Gazmin said the “cooperation” Ma spoke of was about developments at Ayungin Shoal.

“‘Yung cooperation, cooperation in terms of hindi natin iva-violate ‘yung usapan na magtatayo tayo ng mga structures, sabi naman natin, magdadala tayo ng supplies sa mga tao doon, tubig at pagkain,” he said.

The defense chief said he also discussed with Ma the scheduled “rotation” of Philippine troops stationed at Ayungin.

“Hindi naman puwedeng permanente ang tao dun, masisira ang ulo,” Gazmin said. (John Roson)

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At least two people were killed while six others were injured and three more went missing as a mayoralty candidate’s supporters were ambushed by supporters of the a rival candidate, whose husband is the incumbent mayor, in Bataraza, Palawan, on Friday night, police said.

Senior Supt. Atanacio Macalan, Palawan provincial police director, said mayoralty candidate Muslinin Abdurajik’s supporters were passing through Brgy. Igang Igang on a Toyota Revo around 11:47 p.m. when they were fired upon by several armed men.

The armed men are supporters of incumbent Mayor Abraham Ibba’s wife, Katrina, who is also running for mayor, Macalan said in a phone interview.

A still unidentified male died on the spot while a girl, estimated to be 14 to 16 years old, was found dead inside a nearby house after the attack, he said.

”Yung na-ambush ay nasa sasakyan, nakasakay sila sa Revo… di pa matiyak kung saan papunta. Siguro ‘yung babae nahagip ‘yun sa crossfire, kasi sa loob ng bahay namatay,” Macalan said.

Six persons were injured and have been brought to a local hospital, but one of them reportedly expired Saturday morning, the police official said.

“Mayroon pang reported na nawawala na tatlo, baka ‘yung pasaheros nung Revo pati ‘yung driver, na siguro nakatakas nung nagbabakbakan, o binabakbakan sila, at grabe yung sugat nila, kaya hindi pa narerecover,” Macalan said.

Six persons believed to be among those who carried out the ambush were arrested when members of the Bataraza Police and Marine troopers launched pursuit operations, he added.

Abdurajik is running for mayor of Bataraza under the Nationalist People’s Coalition against incumbent Mayor Ibba’s wife, Katrina, who is running under the National Unity Party, according to the Commission on Elections’ list of candidates. (John Roson)

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Two explosions occurred at the compound of Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp. in Bataraza, Palawan, Wednesday night, but no one was reported injured, police said.

The explosions occurred past 8 p.m. near the company’s private airstrip and power facility, Senior Supt. Atanacio Macalan, Palawan provincial police director, said in a phone interview.

No one was hurt, but the explosions reportedly created small craters, he said.

One of the craters was measured as having a 12-inch radius and 4-inch depth, Insp. Pearl Lambanmarzo, provincial police spokeswoman, said in a separate phone interview, citing field reports.

Macalan ruled out any possibility that the New People’s Army had a hand in the blasts, saying there had been no reports that the rebel group has a presence in the area.

“Wala ‘yun, wala ‘yun. ‘Yung tinitingnan nating mga motibo dito, isa is politically, business, or done by unscrupulous characters,” he said.

“Tinitingnan natin kung politically motivated kasi at this point in time election period na, pero wala kaming narinig na itong Rio Tuba Mining Corp. made a pronouncement na mayroon silang sinusuportahang candidate. Since election period lang, I said, tingnan natin ‘yun,” the police official added.

Lambanmarzo said blast investigators were sent this morning from the provincial capital, Puerto Princesa City, to determine what caused the explosions.

They have yet to relay investigation results as Bataraza, Palawan’s southernmost town, is a 4- to 5-hour drive from Puerto Princesa and has poor mobile phone signal, she said.

Rio Tuba Nickel Mining Corp., owned by Nickel Asia and its Japanese partner Sumitomo Metals and Mining Co. Ltd., has been mining nickel ores and selling these to smelters abroad since 1977. (John Roson)

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Rebels raid pearl farm in Palawan

Armed men who introduced themselves as communist rebels raided a pearl farm in Taytay, Palawan, where they seized six employees, firearms, and communication equipment, a military spokesperson said.

About 12 armed men, who told the pearl farm’s manager that they are New People’s Army (NPA) members, carried out the raid at the Salvamar Pearl Farm in Brgy. Pampang past 12 noon, Armed Forces Western Command spokesperson Lt. Cherryl Tindog said by phone.

“Nung umatake ‘yung armed group, tangay nila yung mga shotguns, handheld radios, saka speedboats ng kompanya. Kasama ‘yung mga operators ng speedboats kaya naging anim ‘yung tinangay nilang katao,” Tindog said.

The rebels, however, released the six pearl farm employees past 3 p.m. or around 4 p.m., she said.

“Nasa custody na ng provincial police ‘yung anim na personnel… ni-release sila ng abductors, sa ngayon naga-undergo sila ng debriefing at ‘yung medical attention ibinibigay na rin,” Tindog said.

The regional military spokesperson declined to say where the hostages were freed so as not to jeopardize ongoing pursuit operations by troops.

Tindog said it is likely that the attack stemmed from extortion because the NPA had previously sent “demand letters” to the pearl farm management.

“Merong kasing mga previous incidents na ‘yung grupo ng NPA na ito, under the leadership ni alyas Ka Arnel, na meron silang demand letters na nag-eextort sila doon. Siguro dahil hindi naibibigay, hindi naggi-five in ‘yung management ng Salvamar Pearl Farm, kaya nag-retaliate sila,” she said.

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A Chinese fishing vessel ran aground at the Tubbataha Reef on Monday night, just days after a US Navy ship was removed from the protected marine biodiversity area, authorities said Tuesday.

The fishing boat ran aground at the southern portion of the reef’s North Islet around 11:45 p.m., Navy spokesman Col. Edgard Arevalo said, citing a report from Tubbataha Reef park superintendent Angelique Songco.

The boat, which bears the number 63168, has 12 crew members on board, Arevalo said.

Lt. Cmdr. Armand Balilo, Coast Guard spokesman, said one of their search and rescue vessels was sent to the scene to help park rangers investigate.

The BRP Romblon (SARV 3503) arrived at the site around 10:55 a.m. Tuesday and confirmed the grounding of the 20-meter long boat, he said.

“Ang plano is kapag nag-refloat yung fishing boat due to high tide, eescortan ito dun sa Puerto Princesa City then dadalhin ‘yung crew sa National Committee on Illegal Entrants. Kung poachers sila, kakasuhan,” Balilo said in a phone interview.

Should the fishing boat fail to refloat, its crew members will be taken to Puerto Princesa on board the BRP Romblon, he said.

The grounding occurred just 10 days after authorities finished removing the USS Guardian’s wreckage at the reef’s South Atoll on March 30.

The Guardian, which ran aground on Jan. 17 after making a port call in Subic Bay, Zambales, damaged 2,345.67 square meters of coral, according to the Tubbataha Management Office (TMO).

The US government will be fined $1.5 million, or P58.4 million, for the Guardian’s grounding, the TMO said. (John Roson)

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