Philippines opens school on disputed island

The Associated Press staff

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — Philippine officials have opened a small kindergarten on a South China Sea island that is also claimed by five other governments.

Mayor Eugenio Bito-onon said Sunday that the school opened on June 15 without fanfare to help a poor Filipino community on the island in the Spratly archipelago and not antagonize rival claimants.

Five students were welcomed by their teacher in a classroom filled with crayons, pencils, coloring books, and a blackboard, Bito-onon said. A Philippine flag fluttered in the breeze in the schoolyard on the 91-acre island, which the Philippines calls Pag-asa — or “hope” in Tagalog.

“We’re trying to come up with as normal a community as possible and this is one important step,” Bito-onon said by telephone. “The kids were very excited. They grabbed their new schoolbags and prodded their parents to bring them to class early.”

Filipino troops guard Pag-asa, the largest of nine islands, sandbars, and reefs, held by the Philippines under a municipality led by Bito-onon. The Philippine government established the far-flung municipality in 1978 to reinforce its claim to the Spratly archipelago.

More than a dozen families have been encouraged by the government to live on the tadpole-shaped island 300 miles off southwestern Palawan province by offering them free food, shelter, electricity, water, and now, education.

China, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia, and Vietnam also claim the mostly barren Spratlys, which are believed to be rich in oil and gas and are near one of the world’s busiest sea lanes.

A nonbinding 2002 accord discourages aggressive acts that could spark fighting. Bito-onon said opening a kindergarten could not be seen in anyway as having violated that pact. (end)

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