PLANTING THE FLAG IN THE ISLANDS OF DISPUTE
by Peter Jaynul V. Uckung
A national call for the celebration of freedom will reverberate throughout the Philippines come June 12, 2012, for this is a day of freedom, of sovereignty. On June 12, 1898, the freedom of the Philippines was declared in Kawit, Cavite, while Spanish strongholds around the country came falling down before the force of renewed revolutionary fury.
Philippine flags will once again adorn our national hi-ways. Flags in every plaza shall be exalted and offered wreaths and speeches.
Somewhere, in the vastness of the recently renamed West Philippine Sea, there is a string of islands and islets, almost three hundred miles off Palawan that our flag should stand and proudly wave, and wave alone.
But in so doing, we will be lighting the fuse of an international crisis.
The string of islands being referred to are the Spratlys, which, besides the Philippines, are being claimed by China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
China is basing its claim through historical evidences, reaching back as far as 2nd century B.C., during the reign of Emperor Wu Di of the Han Dynasty. Ancient Chinese records had defined a definite relationship between the islands, which they named Nansha Island Group, and Imperial China.
Vietnam contends that the same string of islands were in Vietnam’s possession since the 17th century, and by virtue of the country’s relationship with France, a former colonial master who took the island and ceded it to Vietnam when Vietnam became independent.
Malaysia, meanwhile based its claim on the projection of its continental shelf. Brunei also gives this as reason for its own claim to the Spratlys, and also its right of exclusive economic zone.
The government of the Philippines became aware of the significance of the Spratlys after World War II. When Tomas Cloma chanced upon the islands and claimed them.
Between 1947 and 1950, Cloma had been visiting the Spratlys and making plans in establishing an ice plant and cannery complex. But it was only in May 1956 that Cloma raised the Philippine Flag in one of the unoccupied islands.
Before Cloma, however, an American, Morton F. Meads, made headlines by claiming to have discovered a kingdom with a population of several thousands in the Spratlys, when he sailed from Jolo in 1945. He called it the Kingdom of Humanity.
As ordered by then President Ramon Magsaysay, this was investigated by the Philippine Air Force, and was proven a hoax.
Cloma, on May 15, 1956, wrote an official letter to the Philippine Government, with the information that he was claiming a territory not within the jurisdiction of any country as his own. This claim was published in local papers and even sent abroad. Cloma called his islands Freedomland. He then asked the Philippine government for protection from encroachment of other countries.
The Philippine government considered Cloma’s right to exploit the islands except in certain islands (which were bigger that others). These islands were considered by the Philippines as de facto trusteeship of the Allies of the Second World War. The islands, occupied and used by Japan as war bases, were relinquished by Japan in a Peace Treaty signed in San Francisco in September 1951.
With the publication of Cloma’s claim, there were quick and indignant reactions from other claimants – from China, Vietnam and Taiwan, particularly. There were claims even from the French and Dutch governments.
Cloma then tried to organize a government for his Freedomland, complete with a constitution, whose seat of government was in an island named Pag-asa. On October 1956, Taiwanese warships visited the area; Cloma was invited for discussion aboard one of the Chinese vessels. He was detained, his ships ransacked for arms, maps and documents. The Chinese even burned Cloma’s building in the islands.
From then on the harassment began.
The Spratly Islands were named after One British Mariner, Richard Spratly, who sailed through them in 1843. He reported his “discovery” in the Nautical Magazine. Although already named in the map as Horsburgh Storm Islands, the British Admiralty renamed them after spratly.
In Chinese maps, this group of islands was called “Nansha” or South Sand Island. There were even documents attesting to the visit of Zheng He, or Cheng Ho to the area. He was a Chinese Muslim, a tall (some say 7ft tall) commander in chief of the Treasure fleet, an armada of 317 junks commissioned to sail the oceans of the known world in 1405 to 1432. Some of his ships were really gargantuan in size – 440 and 538 ft. in length.
A Japanese, chemical factory mined the islands for Guano Phosphate in 1917 up to 1929. The French, in 1933, occupied an island called Itu Aba but were driven by the Japanese in 1939, when Japan converted the island into an airplane/submarine base. Japan renounced its ownership to the islands only in 1951. Five years later, Cloma would lay claim to the islands.
In 1968, with Cloma ceding his claim to the Philippines, the Philippine government declared our right to explore and exploit the islands, based on the 1958 UN Convention on Continental Shelf and 200 mile economic zone. The islands, by then, were considered by the Philippines as Res Nullius, meaning they belong to no one and therefore open to occupation. The Spratlys are part of the Continental Shelf of the Philippines, bolstering our claim of ownership.
But oppositions to our claim grew stronger. By then, bordering on armed confrontation. In 1971, Congressman Ramon V. Mitra was fishing in the Spratlys when he was targeted by artillery shots by Taiwanese soldiers.
In 1976, the real reason for the squabble for ownership of the islands reared itself when China protested a Swedish-Philippine Consortium prospecting for oil in the region.
On June 11, 1978, President Marcos signed PD No. 1596 declaring the Kalayaan Islands a municipality of Palawan. In hydrographic chart, the Kalayaan Islands is known as “Dangerous Grounds”, popularly known as the Spratly Islands.
In 1988, a real battle occured in one of the disputed big islands in the Spratlys, when Chines troops drove out Vietnamese troops, killing almost eighty of them.
In 1991, Malaysia finished construction of a 17 room resort hotel in one of the islands.
Today, the Spratly Islands are divided into territories claimed by different countries, the most belligerent of them being China. There is a popular belief that we are in our strongest legal basis when we consider the law of exclusive economic zone. But, then, this will weaken our claim that the Kalayaan Island Group is part of our national territory because we will be admitting that we do not own the said territory.
It is undeniable that the crisis in the Spratly Islands is being generated mostly by the interest in oil, as there are plenty of reports about the potential oil and mineral riches lying beneath the scattering of island in the area.
Among the claimants, the Philippines and China are the countries most actively pursuing their ownership. Recently, diplomatic protests had been declared by us and by China. Economic embargo and military threats had been unleashed by China, severely damaging the revenues of our government and shaking the confidence of our people on the security of the nation. It is ironic how our relations with China has come nearly to mutual hostility when there are plenty of historical lessons, considering our relations since ancient times with China, to remind us how to avoid such confrontation like the one we are having now in the Spratly Islands.
Consider this, in 1417 Sulu Chieftain, Paduka Batara, visited China to pay homage to Emperor Yung Le, Batara had with him a retinue of 340 persons. The Sulu Chieftain died in China and was buried in Dezhou, two of his sons stayed in China to take care of his tomb. In June 1733, the Sultan of Sulu, Mahmud Badr-Ud-Din sent an envoy to China’s Emperor Yong Cheng, to express gratitude for the royal treatment given to the tomb of Paduka Batara, his ancestor.
During the Philippine colonial era, the Spaniards made it a policy to isolate the Chinese from Filipino natives. During pre-colonial era, the Chinese can live anywhere. In 1581, the first Chinese “Parian” (marketplace) was erected, in a marshy ground near Intramuros. It quickly became the economic center of manila. But this did not dispel the suspicion of the Spaniards upon the Chinese. The Chinese were also feeling the pressure of racial discrimination from the Spaniards. When the Spaniards began preparing for what they thought was an imminent attack from China, the Chinese in Manila were so unnerved and decided to save themselves by striking first.
On October 3, 1603, Manila was attacked by the Chinese. Pampangan warriors were rushed to the city and helped drove the Chinese away. The Chinese made their last stand in San Pablo City. Almost 23,000 Chinese perished in the rebellion.
Abusive tribute collectors and unreasonable labor practice inspired another Chinese revolt in 1639. Several towns in Cavite, Batangas and Bulacan were sacked by the Chinese rebels. They eventually retreated to Laguna and there, in Cavinti and Lumban, put up their last defense. In 1640 they surrendered in Pagsanjan. Almost 24,000 Chinese perished.
There was also a Chinese revolt in 1662 brought about by the threat of Koxinga, the Chinese conqueror of the Dutch in Formosa (Taiwan). The Spaniards, fearing an attack by Koxinga, immediately began to arm the colony, arousing fear among the Chinese residents. Soon, there were armed confrontations that led to open hostilities between the Chinese residents and the Spaniards. The Chinese fled to Taytay and Antipolo where they were defeated by Pampangan force.
The last Chinese revolt occurred in 1762, coinciding with the British occupation of Manila. Chinese in Pampanga concocted a plan to rise in arms. But the plan was betrayed to the Spaniards, and the plotters arrested and hanged. The Spanish governor-general ordered the massacre of the Chinese throughout the country. About 6,000 of them were killed. The event was remembered as the Red Christmas of 1762.
One shining moment of Filipino-Chinese relation worth mentioning occurred during World War II. When Japan invaded the Philippines in 1941 , Chinese youths organized themselves into a guerrilla unit called Philippine-Chinese Anti Japanese Guerilla Force or Wha-Chi. Theirs was a very effective guerrilla unit who participated in battles, ambushes and espionage against the Japanese. So grand was the gratitude of Filipino civilians to these rag-tag intrepid guerillas that they erected monuments for them. In Sta. Cruz, Laguna stands one Wha-Chi monument so that people will not forget their heroic effort in fighting the Japanese.
The lessons so painfully etched into the pages of history should guide us in dealing with the territorial squabbling for the Spratly Islands. History has given us the right and wisdom to effect a diplomatic solution to the crisis, without having to be manipulated into a state of belligerency.
War is never an option and is the end of all things civilized.
1. Hsiao Shiching, The nanshas (Spratlys) Disputes, Quezon City, Philippines, 1999.
2. Government States Position on Imbroglio Over Isles, New Philippines, Vol. VI, February 1974.
3. Gregorio Zaide, Philippine Political and Cultural History, Manila, Philippines, 1957.
4. Gregorio Zaide, History of the Filipino People, The Modern Book Co. Manila, Philippines, 1969.
5. Freedom Islands Occupied by Aliens? Manila Times, July 8, 1971, p. 10.
6. Joe Hung, The Contest for the Spratly Islands, Manila Chronicle, July 13, 1971, p. 5.
7. Walter W. Brown, Freedomland and Oil, Manila Chronicle, July 11, 1971, p.7.
8. Uk, Netherlands Drops Spratly Trustees Right, Manila Times, July 21, 1971, p. 26.
9. Jack Foisie, Spratly Islands “owners” Mushroom, August 10, 1971, p.20.
10. Ramon Tulfo, Cloma, Discover of Freedomland, Times Journal, February 9, 1874, p. 5.
11. Primitivo Mijares, RP Stand: Let the UN Settle Dispute Over the Spratlys, Philippine Daily Express, February 16, 1974, p. 4.
12. Julius Fortuna, 5 Nations to begin Talks on Spratlys, Daily Globe, July 5, 1991.
13. Spratlys Claimants Wary of China Move, Daily Inquirer, February 29, 1992, p. 1.
14. Romy V. Mapile, Oil Exploration in Spratlys Stirs Protests, Manila Bulletin, June 7, 1992, p. 1.
15. Bernadette E. Tamayo, US: Manila can’t invoke defense fact on Spratly, Philippine Times Journal, July 18, 1992, p. 1.
16. Manny Mogato, Sino Ships Harass Navy Supply Boat, Manila Times, May 29, 1999, p. 1.
17. We owe 2 atolls, Malaysia insists, Manila Times, June 21, 1999, p. 1.
18. Christine Avendano, China Frustate Asean on Spratlys, Philippine Daily Inquirer, p. 1.