Looking Back

‘The Free Territory of Freedomland’

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Manila North Cemetery, often referred to by its Spanish name, Cementerio del Norte, or simply “Norte” to the living and the dead who call the place home, is one of our hidden heritage treasures. I have visited Norte many times for research, following the advice of the late E. Arsenio Manuel who emphasized the importance of copying biographical details like dates of birth and death from tombstones.

Although the nearby Chinese Cemetery is sometimes on the tourist route, the historian in me draws me more to Norte for the people buried there: Presidents Manuel Roxas, Ramon Magsaysay and Sergio Osmeña, the boxer “Pancho Villa,” the 19th-century painter Felix Resurreccion Hidalgo, movie stars Fernando Poe Sr. and Fernando Poe Jr., the widow of Andres Bonifacio and muse of the Katipunan Gregoria de Jesus, and husband-and-wife National Artists Amado V. Hernandez and Atang de la Rama. One could say that Norte is the equivalent of other historic cemeteries like Highgate in London where Karl Marx is buried or Pere Lachaise in Paris that has a constellation of stars that include: Balzac, Chopin, Maria Callas, Jim Morrison, Edith Piaf and Oscar Wilde.

This reminds me that I have yet to give a walking tour of Norte the same way that Carlos Celdran does of Intramuros or Ivan Man Dy of Binondo.

Aside from history and famous people, what draws me to Norte again and again are the eccentric mausoleums there. I have two favorites—one built like a white-washed Egyptian pyramid that comes complete with a pair of Sphinxes, and the other like a ship, named “M/V Last Voyage,” where the remains of “Admiral” Tomas Cloma (1904-1996) rest in peace.

It was Cloma who took possession of some islands in what is known as the Spratlys in 1956 and made a “Notice to the World” stating his claim and naming these islands “Freedomland.” There used to be a big redundant sign in a gated compound on Buendia between Taft Avenue and Roxas Boulevard, probably Cloma’s residence, that read “The Free Territory of Freedomland.” Cloma was jailed during the Marcos years for impersonating an “admiral.” He was not a member of the Philippine Navy but was addressed as such because he founded what we know today as the PMI Colleges. The former Philippine Marine Institute, PMI is the oldest and largest training ground for young Filipinos in search of a career at sea, and was the first maritime school to have its own training vessel called “M/V Admiral Tomas Cloma.”

Cloma’s claim to Freedomland was protested both by the People’s Republic of China (PROC) and the Republic of China (ROC) in 1956, but it was Marcos who “convinced” Cloma to cede his claim to the Philippines for P1. Freedomland is now known as the Kalayaan Islands. To complicate matters further, there is a claim earlier than Cloma’s that dates back to the 19th century, when British naval captain James George Meads staked a claim that is the basis of a nation the size of a postage stamp called the Republic of Morac-Songhrati-Meads.

With Chinese and Philippine vessels literally eye to eye at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal and one party telling the other to leave what each claims as its territory, we are just waiting who will be the first to blink. What we have here is a complicated situation born of history. The disputed Spratly Islands were named after Richard Spratly (1806- or 1811-1866) who sighted them in 1843 and whose report was published in British naval literature the same year. What most of us do not know is that the islands already had a name before the British admiralty gave in and called them the Spratlys; in some sources they were already known as Horsburgh’s Storm Island. The British admiralty at the time didn’t know, or refused to acknowledge, that the islands were also on Vietnam’s maps since 1838 and were even referenced in its historical records in the 17th century. China goes even further, providing old maps and references to the islands as early as the 13th century. Thus, history is at the root of the issue and can probably be its solution, too.

Now that the world is a more complicated place, Filipino schoolchildren will have to unlearn texts that refer to the South China Sea and learn anew about the islands that are part of Palawan in the West Philippine Sea. Children in countries with which we are in dispute learn otherwise, of course, since Brunei claims the Spratlys as part of its exclusive economic zone, Malaysia claims them as part of Sabah, and Vietnam claims them as part of Khanh Hoa province. China has two claims: PROC/Beijing claims the islands as part of Hainan province, while ROC/Taiwan claims them as part of Kaohsiung municipality.

Then there are fishermen from all these countries who have traditionally cast their nets in the area for centuries before nations and national boundaries were set up.

Tomas Cloma has been branded an eccentric self-styled “admiral” like Kentucky Fried Chicken’s “Colonel” Saunders, but he did take possession of and claimed those controversial islands we know today as the Kalayaan group that makes up part of Philippine territory.

The story of Kalayaan is long and complex. It has different meanings depending on whose version of the story we are reading, thus making history relevant again.

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