Landing on the Spratlys 25 years ago
I put aside the piece I have written for today to give way to another, to celebrate the positive ruling two days ago of the UN-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on the Philippines’ complaint, junking China’s intrusion and claim over the West Philippine Sea (South China Sea). I jumped for joy when I heard the news announced by the grim-faced acting Foreign Secretary Perfecto Yasay of the Duterte administration.
But thank you, former president Benigno S. Aquino, former foreign secretary Albert del Rosario and the legal team, for bravely pursuing the case against a bully nation.
Throwback Thursday. I am resurrecting a piece I wrote 25 years ago in this space. I also wrote a long, two-part series for the Sunday Inquirer Magazine. I was one of the first two journalists to have stepped on the disputed Spratlys in June 1991.
SPRATLY GROUP OF ISLANDS—Suddenly there it was, Pag-asa, a little green island floating on a sea of turquoise blue. Our small 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.”
The Air Force’s 10-seater Nomad plane circled just a little longer to allow us to feast our eyes on the proverbial emerald isle and then came down with a light thud on a runway abloom with dandelions.
Spratly, at last, after three years of waiting. Spratly, at last, after some two hours of eternal sea and sky. Figuratively, we were in the middle of nowhere. More accurately, we were far into the South China Sea, 278 nautical miles off Puerto Princesa, Palawan, far enough for us to say we were no longer on the regular map of the Philippines. But make no mistake, we were definitely still on Philippine soil. (The volcanic ash from the June Mount Pinatubo eruption has travelled up to here.)
We stepped out into the open and were met by men wearing deep 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.” Air Force chief Maj. Gen. Loven Abadia was on his first visit here as commanding general and we were invited to come along. Among those with him were Brig. Gen. Ciriaco Reconquista, commander of the Palawan-based 570th Composite Tactical Wing, and Col. Felix Duenas Jr., the Air Force’s chief for planning.
Theirs was no after-thought visit. Talk of timing … I will be writing an extensive feature (with photographs) on the Spratly Islands sometime in July in the Sunday Inquirer Magazine, my home base.
In the recent weeks, the issue about the Spratly Islands (Kalayaan or Freedom Group of Islands to us Filipino claimants) was again in the international news. Time magazine had three pages on it. “A flash-point” is how these islands are always called, and this gives a sudden cold flash in the spine considering that there are six other formidable Asian nations (Vietnam, Taiwan, China, Malaysia, Indonesia and recently Brunei) making claims to the rest of the 53 islands rumored to be floating on oil.
“Occupancy is possession,” says Abadia. That seems to be the law of the sea in these parts. Since the 1950s when the Philippines took over nine islands, Philippine troops have always been stationed here. We now have only eight islands, fewer than some countries have. When the Philippines abandoned Pugad island eight years ago, Vietnam right away took over and has since held on to it. There are always takers.
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 here manned by a civilian. The seven other islands have men watching over them, too. Security prevents me from divulging how many men are stationed on every island. But this I can say —the other nations have more resources with which to protect their island-gems. “We either take care of these islands or give them up,” Abadia says.
In the 1970s there were more soldiers stationed on the islands. Not anymore. “Somewhere along the way, this place was forsaken.” Why? “Ask the politicians,” Abadia snaps.
It’s no joke being assigned to the Spratlys or Kalayaan, unless one has the predisposition of a monk or a hermit. The next Navy ship will come probably in January of next year. Only light planes can land and they come every few months. Occasionally big fishing boats come and the soldiers are happy to see new faces.
After several months, the men have to be replaced with a fresh batch because the solitude and desolation during the monsoon months turn some soldiers into overnight poets and they are moved to write lachrymose verses on walls and bathrooms. (We copied some of them.)
There are some resilient mainstays though (maybe the hazard pay is an incentive) and one wonders how they are able to stay sane. The piles of gin bottles say it all. There are no women there except “Gina.” Of course there have been tales about men talking to the waves. But with the advent of VCRs the loneliness has become bearable. And what sort of shows do they watch? “Mostly bold,” says a junior grade Navy lieutenant. “And war movies starring Telly Savalas.” The men in other foreign-occupied islands must be just as lonely.
So why should there be fear of war on these islands? “It is a historical fact that people and nations fight over resources,” Abadia serves a reminder. “In the next generation the area of conflict will be the sea because it is the source of food. If there are resources in Kalayaan we have to defend them.”
Before leaving, Abadia gave a pep talk and promised to send as many tapes as he could find. Also a freezer. The men had stars in their eyes.
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The three-day 3rd Philippine Conference on New Evangelization starts tomorrow at the UST Millennium Hall, hosted by Manila Archbishop Luis Antonio Cardinal Tagle.
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