Bad news, good news

Last I checked, we still have a free press. Foreign media, especially, cannot be expected to keep quiet about and not report bad news.

So, Tourism Secretary Wanda Teo should stop blaming the press and Vice President Leni Robredo for the difficulties in attracting tourists to our country. She should blame instead bad things happening around us – murders, extrajudicial killings, extortions – for dampening tourism. If our country is unsafe even for our own citizens, how much more for visitors? No less than United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions Agnes Callamard has suggested that Teo ask the government to put a stop to extrajudicial killings instead of going after the press. What Teo should also be doing is pay attention to the tourism infrastructure. Essentials such as road signs, reliable maps, competent tour guides, public toilets, transportation are still sorely inadequate. Unless we fix these, no amount of hard sell will boost tourism.

Meanwhile, fully developed tourist destinations are overdeveloped and in dire need of environmental intervention. The green and slimy Boracay beach, captured in news photos, is one sad example.  I was in Boracay for my grand-niece’s destination wedding a week before the photographs came out and can attest to how disgusting the water is. Barely anyone was in the water. I can only imagine that the few who were swimming in the algae-infested water were not aware of where the algae comes from.

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The latest controversy involving China, this time over Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and Benham Rise, is enough to make one’s head spin. President Rodrigo Duterte’s statement that he can’t stop China building on Panatag Shoal was unpresidential and uncalled for. Panatag Shoal is part of Philippine territory under the law that defines our archipelagic baselines. We have sovereignty over it, we own it, and we must defend it.

So instead of letting China have its way, Duterte, as commander-in-chief, should be doing something – file a protest, send troops to protect the shoal – not issue a statement that seems to be giving away what is rightfully ours. The issue over Benham Rise arising from Chinese vessels spotted there is so muddled because the President does not quite know what it is all about. Duterte at first didn’t even know what Benham Rise is. He later said he agreed to let China visit and survey Benham Rise, only to have the foreign secretary say this was not the case. But there’s something even more basic: the confusion that the Philippines owns Benham Rise when it does not.

Benham Rise is part of the country’s extended continental shelf or beyond 200 nautical miles from the nation’s shores. What the Philippines has are sovereign rights, not sovereignty, over it. As Justice Antonio Carpio explained so well, sovereign rights give us the exclusive and superior right to other states, including China, to explore and exploit the oil, gas and other mineral resources and the sedentary species such as abalone, clams and oysters.

According to Carpio, China and other states can do the following at Benham Rise: conduct fishery research (the fish in the ECS belongs to mankind), survey water salinity and water currents (the water column in the ECS belongs to mankind), and conduct depth soundings for navigational purposes (there is freedom of navigation in the ECS).

He said further, “If the Chinese vessels were looking for submarine passages and parking spaces, that would be part of freedom of navigation and the Philippines has no reason to complain.” Now, if the Chinese vessels were conducting seismic surveys to look for oil, gas and minerals, that would be another story. China would then be violating our sovereign rights.

China has assured the Philippines, though, it will not and never dispute the Philippines’ sovereign rights over Benham Rise. Let’s hope that is and will be the case.

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Enough of bad news. We do have a harvest of positive news lately. My personal good news is that my granddaughter (incoming grade five) was elected kalihim (second-in-command) of her school’s katipunan (student council).
I also highly enjoyed reading about Erwin Macua, the 38-year-old security guard who graduated cum laude in education from the school which he was guarding – St. Theresa’s College in Cebu City. Reading about how family had helped him finish his school projects during weekends reminds me of my own school days as a working student.

Since all of us siblings were working students, our mom was the one who scoured the public libraries for us and borrowed books when we were all writing our undergraduate theses. She would pre-read the books and mark those chapters that we might need to read ourselves. I always said mom earned more college degrees than any of us siblings. None of us would have graduated without each others’ help. Education in the Philippines truly is a family affair.

Equally good news is that of 21-year-old Jireh Bautista, the son of a shoe repairman who graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, summa cum laude, from the Cebu Institute of Technology-University. And then we have Macdum Darping Enca, a Muslim-Filipino born and raised in Cotabato City topping the Philippine National Police Academy Masidlak Class of 2017. As well, of the top 10 cadets from the PNPA, seven hail from Mindanao. At the Philippine Military Academy, the top graduate is again a female. Cadet First Class Rovi Mairel Valino Martinez of Cabanatuan City dominated the Salaknib Class of 2017. Along with her are seven female cadets who also made it to the top 10 of their class.

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I was in China in the company of Princess Jacel Kiram, her mother Celia Kiram and six others to visit the tomb of the Sultan of Sulu in Dezhou, Shandong. The visit on March 28 is courtesy of Ambassador Carlos Chan, special envoy to China. This year marks the 600th anniversary of the royal visit of Sultan Paduka Batara to the court of Emperor Yong Le in Beijing in 1417. On his way back to Sulu, the sultan fell ill and died in Shandong. He was given an imperial burial by the emperor. His eldest son Dumahan returned to Sulu to reign as sultan while Batara’s wife, second and third sons remained behind to take care of his tomb and to observe mourning rites and sacrifices.

Today, the sultan’s descendants in Dezhou count 21 generations. They are keepers of the tomb as well as keepers of their Islamic faith. The tomb is now a heritage park under the cultural protection unit of the Chinese government. It has a mosque and a museum depicting the Sultan’s journey. It is, after all, the only tomb of a foreign monarch where an entire village of his descendants stayed as keepers of the tomb.

In commemoration of the 600th anniversary, Ambassador Chan provided funds to repair, renovate and re-landscape the tomb and the park. The importance the Chinese government and Ambassador Chan have given to the preservation of the royal tomb assures us that even now, six centuries later, the glory and the drama of Sultan Paduka Batara’s visit to China has not and will not fade.

The Philippine government should do its part in commemorating the historic journey as concrete evidence of ancient ties that bound our two countries together.  The importance we give to celebrating the event will help enhance the political, socio-economic and cultural relations that began centuries ago and signify our belief that the ties that bind are surely stronger than the issues that divide us.

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