The old man and the sea
In last week’s piece (“My Spratlys ABC”) I said I would write about “The Admiral,” Tomas Cloma, the man who claimed the Spratly Islands for himself and, later, for the Philippines. He was 87 years old when I interviewed him in 1991, the year that group of islands in the South China Sea (West Philippine Sea) was again in the news and being watched as a “flashpoint.”
While we were talking, Cloma would rock his rocking chair and break into song: “Freedomland, O Freedomland, the home of the free…” With his bright disposition, Cloma did not look like he was about to sail into the sunset. When people called him “The Admiral” he would brighten up because it reminded him of the sea.
Cloma was no officer of the Navy but he was some kind of explorer, a dreamer. A lawyer and founder of the Philippine Maritime Institute, Cloma owned ships that sailed in search of wealth from the sea. From 1947 to 1950, fishing boats of Tomas Cloma and Associates frequented that area where the now disputed Spratly Islands are. He intended to put up an ice plant and a cannery and also mine the guano deposits in the islands.
(The Cloma expeditions are chronicled in Dr. Juan Arreglado’s book, “Kalayaan: Historical, Legal and Political Background.”)
In early 1956, Cloma again sent an expedition to the islands. Before his ship sailed, he gave a farewell dinner attended by high government officials. PMI-IV, a training ship of PMI, sailed with Cloma’s brother Filemon as captain. The expedition lasted 38 days.
Cloma then informed the Department of Foreign Affairs that he had sent 40 Filipino citizens to the islands to occupy and survey “a territory in the China Sea outside of Philippine waters and not within the jurisdiction of any country.” He and his associates were claiming the territory and posting notices on the islands.
Cloma based his claim on “the rights of discovery and/or occupation, open, public and adverse as against the Whole World.” He also gave notice of the islands’ change of name to “Freedomland.” He made it clear, however, that the claim was being made by citizens of the Philippines and “not on behalf of the Government of the Philippines because we were not authorized to do so. This will, however, have the consequent effect of the territory becoming part of the Philippines.”
Some people thought Cloma was mad. Others thought he was clever, but warned that since the islands had previously been occupied by an “unfriendly power” (Japan), any claim might pose a danger to Philippine security. Taiwan at that time was also sending its navy to take possession of the islands even as Mainland China was also protesting all claims. South Vietnam joined in to say that the Spratlys, along with the Paracels (farther north) had “always been part of Vietnam.”
Not long after, France disputed Vietnam’s argument, saying it had ceded the Paracels but not the Spratlys. Vietnam made a counterclaim. A few days later the DFA was said to have received reports that the Netherlands “would momentarily stake its own claim over the disputed islands, with the backing of the United Kingdom.”
Undaunted, Cloma sent another expedition to bring provisions to his men there who found some markers destroyed by Taiwanese troops. A protest was lodged. Losing no time, Cloma gave notice that he was establishing the government of the “Free Territory of Freedomland” which was to be a “protected state” of the Philippines. He even appointed ambassadors.
A few months later, in October 1956, while the PMI-IV was anchored near what was then called Ciriaco Island, a Taiwanese destroyer and a patrol craft again intimidated Cloma’s men.
Benito Danseco, 61 years old in 1991, was 26 years old when that happened. “I was the boarding officer of PMI-IV,” he told me. “When the Chinese came, I was on the island. Filemon Cloma called me to help in the negotiations. They wanted us to leave but we told them, show us proof of ownership of the island.” They refused to sign a statement that they were going to leave Freedomland.
Danseco remembered the abundance of fish, the sea birds, the albatross and the turtles that laid so many eggs it was difficult not to step on them.
Tomas Cloma tried to bring the Freedomland issue to the United Nations but the Philippine representative was not too interested. Cloma hung on to the government’s declaration that the Spratlys were under de facto trusteeship of the Allied Powers (when they were ceded by Japan) and the islands of Freedomland as res nullius, open to economic exploitation and settlement of Filipino nationals.
In 1974, Cloma irrevocably waived “for one peso” in favor of the Republic of the Philippines, all rights and interests over the islands. In 1978, President Ferdinand Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1596, citing legal grounds for the Philippines’ claim and creating the municipality of Kalayaan (Filipino for freedom) and making it part of Palawan province and declaring it within the 200-nautical mile exclusive economic zone.
The last time Cloma was in Kalayaan was in 1987. “I took a yacht from Ulugan Bay,” he told me. “There were no inhabitants there except the crabs that went up the trees.”
Having read last week’s column on the Spratlys where I extensively quoted the late law professor Haydee Yorac who was an expert on The Law of the Sea, Yorac’s sister Margot sent me a fresh copy of Yorac’s “The Philippine Claim to the Spratly Islands Group” that came out in the Philippine Law Journal in 1983.
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