THE Senate leadership on Monday assured the Army that the chamber will support their budgetary needs for 2024, even as senators were urged to pay attention to the urgent need to provide more resources to Pag-asa Island, the former military site transformed into a civilian community, and the most important symbol of Philippine sovereignty in the West Philippine Sea.
Beyond crafting and pushing for legislative measures that will strengthen the Armed Forces of the Philippines, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri said that in his meeting last week with Budget Secretary Mina Pangandaman, “I told her how crucial it is that we not underbudget for the AFP in the 2024 National Expenditure Program.”
Zubiri added on Monday: “I want to see our Armed Forces be on equal footing with the technology and equipment of our neighboring countries. For that to happen, we need better ships, new jets, missile systems, and armaments, among other things. This will cost a lot, but that’s the cost of protecting the country.”
Hours after Zubiri made the assurance to the Army, Sen. Jinggoy Estrada delivered a privilege speech drawing attention to the “plight of our kababayans in the remote and isolated Pag-asa Island—the largest landform of the Kalayaan Island Group which includes Ayungin Reef and Rizal Shoal and the islets of Lawak, Patag, Likas, Kota, Panata, Parola, and Pag-asa.”
Kalayaan, a fifth-class municipality, is the least populated town in the Philippines, Estrada noted, with 350 civilians or 65 households currently living on Pag-asa Island as of May this year, 73 of them children.
Recalling his encounters with Pag-asa residents when he visited the island last May 18, Estrada noted the severe lack of basic infrastructure and public services like health and education, and said authorities were dutybound to provide for these people, given the significance of their community.
Joining Estrada on the island visit were Armed Forces of the Philippines Chief of Staff Gen. Andres Centino, Naval Forces West commanding general Alan Javier, Philippine Air Force commanding general Lt. Gen. Stephen Parreño, several other military officers and some Senate reporters.
“For far too long, our brothers and sisters in Pag-asa Island have lived in constant uncertainty. They have endured the harsh realities of a life cut off from essential services and opportunities that many of us take for granted,” Estrada said.
“Their access to healthcare, education, and even the basic necessities of life is hampered by their geographic isolation. Their hopes and dreams often seem distant, obscured by the vastness of the sea that surrounds them.”
Besides the separation from loved ones for months due to lack of transportation options, those living on Pag-asa must contend with the absence of basic health services or a hospital; pregnant women must be airlifted months before their due date to ensure their safe delivery. There is no nurse, doctor, or even a midwife to tend to resident.
The 73 elementary students are taught by just two teachers—sometimes three, when a soldier volunteers to help teach them. And their classrooms still bear the damage wrought by Super Typhoon Odette in December 2021.
Power supply from generator sets is cut off by 10 in the evening. Cash, or what little of it they have, is often irrelevant as “there are no economic transactions and financial activities in the area.”
Estrada continued: “Two decades after opening the once strictly military installation to civilian settlement, the island has remained fallow. This, despite the construction of the beaching ramp which would allow shallow-draft vessels or those with roll-on/roll-off capability to bring in essential landing engineering equipment and other construction materials for the development of the island.
The repair of the Rancudo Airfield which sustained erosion damage is still ongoing. The 1.2-kilometer airfield that was constructed during the 1970s can accommodate only medium size military aircraft. We still have a long way to go if we are really keen on developing Pag-asa Island into a tourism and fishing destination or even a marine research hub.”
Missionary telecommunications service is being provided by Smart Communications which covers Pag-asa Island only.
The senator deemed it his duty “to bring to the fore their daily struggles and advocate for the attention and assistance they desperately need. Pag-asa is a real island that can sustain human life and community.”
He added: “Let us also not forget the sacrifices made by our brave men and women in uniform who guard Pag-asa island with unwavering dedication. They, who face the brunt of the challenges and dangers posed by external forces, put their lives on the line to protect and defend our sovereignty. We owe it to them to support their mission by providing the necessary logistical support to carry out their duties effectively.”
On Monday, Senate President Juan Miguel Zubiri paid an official visit to the Philippine Army for a briefing on the army’s modernization plans, particularly as it transitions from mainly addressing internal threats to addressing territorial defense, under the Pagkakaisa 2023-2028 plan of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).
This visit comes on the heels of Zubiri’s visit to the Philippine Navy in early May, for the christening of two new patrol gunboats and the blessing of their newly upgraded Naval Shipbuilding Yard.
The Army presented its ongoing activities and plans, including engaging in 44 bilateral and multilateral trainings, hosting the ASEAN Armies Rifle Meet, and pursuing 29 projects for Horizon III of the AFP Modernization Program.
The Army also presented its concept for the implementation of the proposed Mandatory Reserve Officers Training Corps Act, under which they are expecting 1.9 million students to enroll, and for which the Army needs 3.7 billion for the implementation.
For his part, Zubiri expressed full support for the AFP Modernization Program.
He also discussed the pending army-related measures in the Senate, led by the National Defense Act, which is a priority measure of the Marcos administration, and the bill rationalizing the disability pension of veterans, which has been approved on third reading in the Senate. This increases the disability pension for military veterans, in accordance with their disability rate.
He also filed the Philippine Defense Industry Development Act (PDIDA), to support the AFP in building a credible defense posture.
“It is vital that we not only procure equipment and technologies from outside the country, but also develop our own capacity to produce the equipment that we need for our forces,” he said.