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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Saturday, September 30, 2006

Back 'mother country,' Filipino-Americans told

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Staff Writer

Willy Gaa, the newly appointed Philippine ambassador to the United States, yesterday urged Filipino-American leaders gathered at a convention in Waikiki to be more active in fostering relations between the two countries.

"I call on Filipino-American organizations, associations and chambers to speak out for our mother country here in North America," Gaa told about 500 members of the 7th annual Empowerment Conference of the National Federation of Filipino American Associations at the Hilton Hawaiian Village's Coral Ballroom.

"You have an enormous capacity to play the role of change agents accelerating the expansion of commerce, investment and tourism from America to the Philippines," said Gaa, who referred to the delegates as kababayan, (countrymen).

"A stalwart Filipino-American lobby should be heard on critical issues Filipino veterans equity and beyond," Gaa said. "If you believe in the centrality of a strong alliance between your adopted country and your native motherland, please say so to government officials on both sides of the Pacific."

A longtime diplomat, Gaa was appointed U.S. ambassador by President Gloria Macapagal Arroyo at the end of July.

Gaa drew the most applause when he reinforced the Philippine government's support for the plight of Filipino veterans of World War II. The Filipino Veterans Equity Bill would restore benefits to veterans, which were rescinded by Congress after the war. A separate piece of legislation would expedite the granting of immigrant visas to sons and daughters of the veterans.

"We must not relent in our determination to see this struggle through to an end," he said.

Arroyo, during a one-day stop here two weeks ago, dedicated a plaque at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific at Punchbowl in honor of both Filipino and American troops from World War II.

Gaa said the Arroyo administration also gave top priority to enactment of laws that would allow overseas voting and dual citizenship.

The Philippine Supreme Court recently decided to uphold the right of Filipinos with dual citizenship to vote in that country's national elections, an issue that was taken to the court by members of the federation.

The ambassador pointed out that 2006 marks not only the centennial of the first Filipinos to arrive in the U.S. but also the 60th anniversary of relations between the U.S. and Philippine governments.

The U.S. and the Philippines share a strong bond that is "nurtured by a shared history and adherence to common values, especially commitment to freedom, democracy and vigorous economic ties," Gaa said.

Proof of the continuing close ties between the two countries can be seen in the political, economic and socio-cultural realms, he said.

The convention wraps up tomorrow. On Thursday, delegates heard from former Philippine President Fidel Ramos.

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com.