SPRATLY ISLANDS: ADIEU
There was a time when Philippine map proudly proclaims the so-called 3,100 islands comprising the whole nation. And for a citizen to visit each island a day means spending more than 8 years of continuous travel all over the archipelagic wonder. And just as we are basking at the thought of development, brick by brick so to speak, one remitted dollar after another from struggling OFWs scattered all over the planet, here we are pledging allegiance to a government which is not only tasked to sustain our political integrity but also our economic and territorial adherence. We must not only embrace government but also protect if necessary every part, corner and bend of its terrain.
Scattered around the big islands are smaller islands and islets. Those near the shore of bigger islands are virtually titled and occupied. Those in the farther end are not inhabited except for some occasional visitation by nearby fisher folks. Most islands and islets comprising the so called Spratly Islands is an example of a semi-inhabited area. The bigger island christened Pag-asa has a number of assigned personnel of our Armed Forces. They are not there as a military outpost but marooned to make it appear that it is a normal community. If at all there is a semblance of military projection, a rickety and rusted decommissioned ship is parked and a number of green painted bamboos arranged in such a manner to feign as a bulky martial arsenal which from a distance may look like a state-of-the-art cannon.
The political pretension was broken when Chinese military vessel began to occupy systematically the islands. And with reason. China not only is convinced that it is theirs but moved in virtually to develop and use the area because there is nothing in it anyway. And why not? If indeed the Philippine government is the owner, how come it never develops, protects and even uses the area for its purpose. I remember a playmate who cried some time past and another playmate responded loudly, “Pinabayaan mo ang tsinelas mo sa kalye tapos nung may kumuha at gumamit, nagwawala ka at nagsisisigaw na sa iyo yun!”
25 years ago, when I was the head of Iwahig Penal Colony, I challenged then Western Command (Wescom) Chief General Carlos Taniega if he could fly me through his chopper to the Spratly Islands so that I could propose to the Prison Bureau and the Department of Justice the transfer of some prisoners. Spratly Islands then were barren pieces of estate which the Philippine government would rather ignore than cast interest on. The good general dismissed my proposal as wishful thinking. Prison population in my penal colony in my estimation at that time (and which came to be to date) would grow and I needed areas for a specific category of offenders, hence my interest on the islands.
25 years later, not only Vietnam, Malaysia and Taiwan are interested in the islands but China as well. As a matter of fact, Chinese vessels, military commissioned ones, were not only active in patrolling the area, they have started to lay claim on them. To prove their serious intention in their overt claims, China even issued their latest map indicating the islands as part of their official territory. Even international bodies in charge of enforcing the observance of international laws were divided in their interpretations. In my own humble way, I joined the fray by issuing a blog that the Spratly Islands can be used by government as a transit community for inmates about to be released.
I was not only ignored, although media made a noise along that line, but I was dressed down. I should never think aloud or else I might complicate the relation of the country with China. And so, I left it at that. I kept quiet despite media hounding me to expound my ideas. My superior in government probably was correct.
Several months later, my government is left to its own devise. Their belief of ownership was shattered by the sight of the islands being developed one after another by a foreign power. Local fishing boats were even shooed away. Even planes of friendly allies were threatened not to fly over the islands. China’s position was clear from the start: constructive possession is ownership. We seem to lose our islands by default.
When I was asked again what my reaction on this development since I was the only one submitting an active proposal, there was only one word I gave—-adieu!