NAAWAN, Misamis Oriental (MindaNews / 18 August) – The WWII vintage naval vessel BRP Sierra Madre was deliberately grounded in Ayungin shoal in 1999 which has served as advanced outpost of the Philippine Marine Corps to assert Philippine sovereignty in the country’s dispute with China over the ownership of some Spratly Islands named Kalayaan Islands by the Filipinos. The outpost is nearer to Palawan than the municipality of Pag-asa within the Kalayaan group of islands.
How did we come to claim and own a portion of the South China Sea we named the West Philippine Sea?
Accordingly, Tomas Cloma, a Filipino adventurer, a fishing magnate, and owner of a maritime school, was fishing off Palawan in 1947 when Typhoon Jennie forced him to seek shelter, leading his group of fishing vessels west of Palawan, into the Spratlys. The group discovered several uninhabited and unoccupied islands/islets, the surrounding waters of which were found to be rich fishing grounds.
On May 11, 1956, together with 40 men, Tomas Cloma and his brother Captain Filemon Cloma took formal possession of the islands, lying some 380 miles west of the southern end of Palawan and named their find “Free Territory of Freedomland.” Four days later on May 15, 1956, Cloma issued and posted copies of his “Notice to the Whole World” on each of the islands as a decisive manifestation of unwavering claim over the territory.
Despite the persistent threats of other hostile claimants, the self-declared admiral was able to maintain possession of Freedomland from 1956 to 1974, until he was forced to cede his rights over the islands to the Philippines for one peso after being imprisoned by then Martial Law dictator Ferdinand E. Marcos for usurpation of authority as the former proclaimed himself as an “Admiral”.
In March 1976, Marcos issued Letter of Instruction No.1-76 organizing the AFP Western Command based in Palawan in response to the heightening conflicting interests in the region and to abate any untoward incident. To further the claim of the Philippines, on June 11, 1978, President Marcos, by virtue of Presidential Decree No.1596, formally annexed the Kalayaan Islands, creating a distinct and separate municipality known as “Kalayaan” under the political jurisdiction of the Province of Palawan.
The administrative center of the Municipality of Kalayaan is in Pag-asa island, which is 280 nautical miles north-west of Puerto Princesa and 932 kilometers (579 mi) south-west of Metro Manila.
The Sierra Madre is a surveillance outpost in Ayungin shoal established in 1999 in response to China’s physical occupation of nearby Mischief Reef in 1995. A small detachment of Marines are stationed on the Sierra Madre to keep watch over the Chinese Coast Guard that regularly patrol the surrounding waters of the shoal which lies just 105 nautical miles from the coast of Palawan.
On September 5, 2012, then President Benigno Aquino III signed Administrative Order No. 29, which named as the West Philippine Sea of the Republic of the Philippines the waters within the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in accordance with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) which took effect on 16 November 1994.
The Hague Arbitral Tribunal declared on July 12, 2016 that the waters, islands, reefs and shoals within the Spratly Islands claim of the Philippines is the country’s EEZ and is part of its sovereign territory in accordance with the Law of the Sea.
Possession, occupation and legal mandate under UNCLOS are the primary basis of the country’s ownership of the West Philippine Sea and everything thereat, a reality beyond Communist China to accept. That is why it has not stopped deploying its coast guards and maritime militia to aggressively harass Filipino fishers and civilian boats that ferry supplies to the country’s Marine outpost in Ayungin Shoal.
The latest water cannon incident is an aggression, which should not simply be responded with another futile diplomatic protest but with something more forceful and telling. For, indeed, cutting the supply of fresh troops to our marine outpost and depriving our defense corps of their food and other sustenance is no less than an act of war. Though in all respects, we are not in a position to fight the communist bully toe for toe; we can show, however, to the whole world our great displeasure by severing, perhaps, their pretentious relation with us.
The communist bully continuously assures us of its friendship, enticing us with soft loans and other goodies; yet, at the same time, it tramples our sovereign rights by the endless provocative trespasses of its naval vessels and maritime-fishing militia in our territorial waters and their illegal exploitation of our marine resources worth billions of pesos year round.
Enough is enough. It’s high time to improve and strengthen the facilities of our outpost in Ayungin Shoal to protect the integrity of our sovereign territory.
And it’s becoming imperative now to break our ties with this pretentious bully and strengthen our alliance with our friendly neighbors and allies to counter their greed and aggression in the West Philippine Sea.
(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. William R. Adan, Ph.D., is retired professor and former chancellor of Mindanao State University at Naawan, Misamis Oriental)