Thursday, March 13, 2008

Spratlys on my mind

Suddenly there it was, Pag-asa, a little green island floating on a sea of turquoise blue. Our small Air Force plane felt like a feather floating in that windy vastness. And I remembered the famous pilot-philosopher Antoine de Saint Exupery’s words” “Below the sea of clouds lies eternity.”

After some two hours of eternal sea and sky from Palawan, there it was. The Air Force 10-seater Nomad plane circled just a little longer to allow us to feast our eyes on the proverbial emerald isle and take photographs and then came down with a light thud on runway abloom with dandelions.

I was in Pag-asa, one in the Spratly Group of Islands claimed by the Philippines, many years ago when the issue of possession and ownership was again in the international news. The Spratlys then were being seen as a flash-point and that gave a sudden cold flash in the spine because there are six other formidable Asian nations (Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei) making claims to the rest of the more than 50 islands “rumored” to be sitting on a bed of oil. The islands that the Philippines claims are called Kalayaan or Freedom Group of Islands.

Today the Spratlys are again a hot item in the Philippine news because of the joint “exploration” some years back the Philippines had with China and Vietnam, both claimants too, and whether or not this had anything to do with the scrapped controversial ZTE-NBN deal with China that has been rocking the political landscape in the past months.

I had waited several years to get to Spratlys. The day came and I was set to go. There we were, a few journalists, in the middle of nowhere. More accurately, we were far into the South China Sea, 278 nautical miles off Puerto Princess, Palawan, far enough to say we were no longer on the regular map of the Philippines. But make no mistake, we were definitely still on Philippine soil.

We stepped out into the open and were met by men with dark brown faces. If not for their snappy salutes and weather-beaten uniforms, they could have come straight out of Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” Then Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Loven Abadia was on his first visit there as commanding general and we were invited to come along.
Occupancy is possession. That seems to be the law of the sea in those parts. Since the 1950s when the Philippines took over nine islands, Philippine troops have always been stationed there. We now have only eight islands, I think, fewer than some countries are occupying. When the Philippines abandoned Pugad island in the 1980s, Vietnam took over with lightning speed and has since held on to it.

Pag-asa, the main and biggest Philippine-owned island (32.6 hectares), is where most of the Air Force and navy troops are stationed. There is a weather station there. At that time, the seven other islands had men watching over them too. Security prevented us from divulging how many men were stationed there.

I did write a long series on the Spratlys and learned a lot in the process. I also did get to interview Tomas “the Admiral” Cloma, the man who, in 1956, made a “Proclamation to the Whole World” asserting ownership over the islands. Cloma’s claim came after a first attempt by the Philippine government in 1947 to declare ownership over what it then called “New Southern Islands”.

Each country-claimant invokes a variety of reasons—from legal to historical—to back up its claim. And while for many long years most Spratly occupants had lived peaceably side by side, there had been hostilities, as in the case of Vietnam and China. In 1988, a bloody clash between the two countries over some reefs resulted in more than 70 deaths and three Vietnamese ships sank.

The issue of ownership breaks out every so often. There is chronic unease. While the Philippines occupies only eight islands, it claims all. So who owns the Spratlys?

It is not a question of who possesses the perfect title but who among the contending parties has the better title. This is was what the late Haydee Yorac, UP Professor and Comelec Chair said then. She was also an expert on the Spratlys. In international law, she said, that is how conflicting claims to territory are resolved.

As Comelec chair, Yorac pushed for elections in Kalayaan which became the 21st municipality of Palawan. Yorac said then that she could argue the Philippines’ claim over all 53 Spratly islands. The Philippines, said Yorac, had always been sensitive to the question of what constitute its island waters and maritime boundaries. The reasons for this sensitivity are economic, fiscal, political and security. Because of its archipelagic nature and having islands lying more than 12 nautical miles from each other, the Philippines consistently advances the concept of its territory as both land and water formed into a composite and integral unity. The legal bases for this are: recognition by treaty, devolution by treaty rights and historic title.

The 1935 Constitution defined Philippine territory as “all the territory ceded to the United States by the Treaty of Paris and Spain (on Dec. 10, 1898) the limits of which are set forth in Article III of said treaty, together with all the islands embraced in the treaty concluded at Washington, between the U.S. and Spain on (Nov. 7, 1900) and the treaty concluded between the U.S. and Great Britain on (Jan. 2, 1930) and all territory over which the present Government of the Philippine Islands exercises jurisdiction.”

In 1955 the Philippines notified the United Nations and other states that all waters within the line described by the Treaty of Paris and the Constitution were Philippine territory subject to the exercise of the right of innocent passage by friendly nations.