Guarding the Philippines Coastline

One recent evening in the protected zone of the Philippines' Turtle Island, visitors from the US and Philippine Navies waited for the turtles to come ashore in the dark to lay their endangered ping pong-sized eggs. It was a rare occasion for the officers, both Filipinos and Americans, to camp out on one of the country's remotest islands.

The two military units, however, were on Turtle Island not to murmur in awe at the turtles but to take part in a long-running and long-stalled program by the Philippine Navy to spend up to P17 billion (US$357 million) to establish 17 Coast Watch stations to guard the country's vast archipelago of islands against terror groups and international criminals, encircling the southern portion of the country from Palawan to Davao.

The Coast Watch system was designed to be part of a border management program funded by the European Union under the Philippines' anti-terrorist law, but an executive order giving all agencies involved to work behind it has yet to be signed by the president. This unfortunately gives foreign aid donors, notably the United States and Australia, the signal that it does not count the south among its top priorities.

The southern fringes of the Philippines have always had the allure of adventure and danger, a paradox to its pristine, undeveloped beauty that the central government in Manila has ignored and neglected for years. The inhabitants of these islands, in fact, are geographically closer to Malaysia on northern Borneo and the trade that binds them.

Isolation, religion and poverty have separated most of the area from the more prosperous north throughout history despite a terrain that, thanks to a tropical sun and copious rain, can grow almost anything. In 2008, the National Statistical Coordination Board put poverty incidence in Mindanao at 38.8 percent, almost double that of Luzon.

Since the eruption of a Muslim rebellion in Sulu in the 1970s, the south has had a difficult time coming out of an economic and social pit despite vast amounts of development aid and peace negotiations. Manila has in the last few years agreed to the presence of visiting US forces, ostensibly to curb terrorism in Sulu and other parts of mainland Mindanao.

The clear blue sky and sea belie a long history of violence. This backward littoral could easily be transformed into ecotourism sites or an economic zone trading in abundant marine products. But security has always been fragile, and there are hardly any passenger routes for easy access, leaving this area into the hands of local officials largely confined to a feudal structure of governance. The sultanates and colonialism of previous centuries were marked by intense political hostility, but it was also a thriving sea lane connecting the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia for trade and commerce – which is somewhat a continuing practice amongst the people living there on a lesser quasi-legal scale.

Apart from attempting to chase off pirates, bandits, and terrorists, the Philippine Navy, although in dire need of modernization, is seeking to revive the importance of what used to be pejoratively called the "backdoor" of the Philippines. And one way of doing that is through the coast watch system.

"We're a maritime country that fell in love with a land-based culture because of circumstances," said Rear Admiral Alexander Pama, commander of the Naval Forces in the south based in Zamboanga City, from where the naval patrol ship took about 21 hours of sailing more than 200 nautical miles to reach the smaller islands.

He was referring to the country's colonial past with America and Spain – which centralized power in Manila in the north. "Evidently we did not value this place, we became land-centric," he added. "We are missing a lot in creating development because we looked at the south as a problem. We have overlooked the fundamental issue, which is honest-to-goodness cultural assimilation, and this can be done."

Even in the armed forces, much of whose budget is concentrated on the army's territorial forces, the bulk of which are deployed in Mindanao on a campaign to end four decades of conflict with Muslim secessionists, largely ineffectively chasing around the Abu Sayyaf jihadi corps. The Navy and Air Force are left on the sidelines, limiting capability for external defense.

The idea of starting a coastal watch initially met with resistance from the local population who had got used to their own kind of commerce with the Malaysians, which is more profitable for them than dealing with small Filipino enterprises on the mainland that would cost them double. But the Navy has worked out an informal arrangement with other local maritime agencies whereby protecting key routes could be economically viable as well.

The islands of Sulu alone are a major fish exporter. They are rich in oil, gas, and minerals. It is also a diver's paradise, an ecological wonder where new marine species are always being discovered. If peace could be attained, ecotourism alone could bring in millions of pesos to the local economy.

"People on the ground are working hard to put it together. What's lacking is the strategic level," said one former government official who had helped draft a defense reform program. "Up to now it is still within reach. I don't see why people upstairs are not thinking of it."

So far the effort of connecting bridges with other littoral states took form in setting up EAGA, the East Asean Growth Area, about 10 years ago when the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei warmed up to each other and conceived a general framework of economic cooperation. This also helped ease tension between the Malaysia and the Philippines, which has territorial claims over Sabah Muslim migrants have sought refuge from the outbreak of hostilities.

Malaysia has 26 radar stations on Borneo; the Philippines on the other hand has a radar system that could cover three percent of its area of about 123,000 square nautical miles. This and other radar to be installed were from military funding from the Americans as part of the visiting forces agreement.

The Coast Watch station in Zamboanga has been newly constructed inside the base command. A smaller station on Turtle Island is scheduled to be completed after the Navy delivered a radar facility in late April, also taking the chance to see what the island is famous for. Here the cell phone signals are from Malaysian satellites and the residents use the ringgit as currency.

They are aiming to build more stations on Palawan's Balabac Island and Sarangani's Tinaka to monitor two other major sea routes, ideally having eight permanent personnel to operate the station on a 12-hour shift. The Coast Watch, even for its humble start, could be a boon to EAGA, according to Pama, for which the Sulu Sea could once again claim its stake as it did in the old days. "We should and go at it alone," he said.

On a clear day, one could see the shore of Sabah, whose people from years past had deep historical ties with the Muslim seafaring tribes of the Sulu archipelago, now an area known to be a playground for outlaws and a haven for terrorists.

That was not so evident when children played by the jetty, welcoming the Americans came ashore on dinghies from their assault craft for a civil-military operation in tandem with the Philippine Navy help put in place a coast watch radar station. And on the beach, the local folks prepared a meal of fresh seafood and fruits.