Seemingly forgotten in the midst of persistent continuing commentaries and wild speculation which followed the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling in the case brought by the Philippines against China’s claims in the South China Sea is the man who, in a way, started it all for the Philippines – Tomas Cloma.
Before ‘Kalayaan,’ Freedomland was the name given to a group of islands, islets, atolls, banks, coral reefs, shoals, sand cays lying in the vast body of waters between southern China and the Philippine archipelago. In 1947, Tomas Cloma, a Filipino lawyer by profession, an educator by association (as Director of the Philippine Maritime Institute, the pioneer seafarers’ school in the Philippines) and an adventurer by avocation, discovered the said island group. During the period 1947 and 1950, fishing boats belonging to Tomas Cloma & Associates visited the said group of islands with the original intention of putting up an ice plant and cannery and to explore the guano deposits in the islands inhabited by birds.
In 1956, after another expedition on board motorship PMI-IV, a training vessel of the Philippine Maritime Institute, Atty. Cloma addressed a letter to then Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Hon. Carlos P. Garcia, informing him that about 20 Filipino citizens were undertaking survey and occupation work in the South China Sea outside of Philippine waters and not within the jurisdiction of any country, and that the territory being occupied was being claimed by him and his associates as citizens of the Philippines, based on the rights of discovery and/or occupation, “open, public and adverse as against the whole world.” He named the claimed area “Free Territory of Freedomland.”
Further communications were made by Atty. Cloma to the Department of Foreign Affairs, mentioning, among others: (i) more expeditions inspecting practically all the major islands in Freedomland; (ii) clearings on an island by settlers accompanied by planting of bananas and other Philippine crops; (iii) setting up of a radio station; (iv) establishment of a separate government for the Free Territory of Freedomland, democratic in character and de facto in nature (v) adoption of all laws of the Republic of the Philippines; and (vi) declaration and affirmation of its status as a “protected state under the Republic of the Philippines.”
By 1957, the Philippine government defined its official position for the first time, with respect to the legal status in international relations of the islands embraced in Freedomland. The government, through a letter from Vice President and Secretary of Foreign Affairs Carlos P. Garcia addressed to Atty. Tomas Cloma expressed a “willingness of the Philippine Government to extend diplomatic protection to the fullest extent to Tomas Cloma” on the matter of Freedomland.
Reactions in the international press were varied, considering the strategic location of the islands, the opportunities for fishing operations, but strangely (and understandably), no one zeroed in on oil, gas and other mineral resources that could possibly be lying underneath the waters of the claimed territory.
On June 1, 1971, the third Philippine Constitutional Convention (Con-Con) was inaugurated in Manila to revise the 1935 Constitution and a number of resolutions were filed, including a few which called for the inclusion of Freedomland in the Philippine territory.
In this connection, a communique was read by then President Ferdinand Marcos in a press conference at Malacanang on July 10, 1971, which stated in part “Freedomland refers to the island group… which Filipino explorer Tomas Cloma explored and occupied from 1947.… These are islands, islets … which are regarded as res nullius and may be acquired according to the modes of acquisition recognized under international law, among which is occupation and effective administration….” It concluded, “We are able to announce that in so far as these islands are concerned, we are in effective occupation and control of the islands of Pag-asa, Lawak and Patag.”
While the 1971 Con-Con Committee on National Territory was deliberating about the inclusion of the provision:
“The Philippine territory comprises the Philippine archipelago… and all other territories belonging to the Philippines by historic right or legal title” in its report, it was decided that discoverer Tomas Cloma should be invited by the Committee to shed more light on Freedomland in order to substantiate and firm up the inclusion of “by historic right or legal title,” (referring also to Sabah and Marianas Islands, aside from Freedomland) for the Convention’s consideration.
Among Atty. Cloma’s statements preserved in the records of the 1971 Con-Con is one which reads, “The specific actions taken by the Philippine Government in pursuance of its Declaration of 10 July 1971, specifically the establishment of garrisons in two of the islands of Freedomland, constituted an open and clear acceptance by the Philippine Government of the protected status of the Government established by Tomas Cloma (& Associates) over Freedomland.”
Admiringly or mockingly, Atty. Cloma was referred to as a “Modern Magellan” and came to be known as “Admiral” Tomas Cloma. One columnist even went to the extent of saying that he appeared to be suffering from a “slight case of imperialism.” Be that as it may, he pursued his quest with courage, open mind and sacrifice.
He concluded his last presentation at the Con-Con by saying, “We did not falter for a moment in our conviction that what we were doing is for the best interest of our Fatherland… leading in due time to the eventual union of Freedomland with the Philippines.”
Prominent resource persons invited by the Con-Con’s national territory committee led by Ambassador Leon Ma. Guerrero reminded the body about the “inherent right of sovereign states to acquire new territory through discovery, occupation, cession, succession and other ways recognized by international practice and the law of nations.” The events that ensued paved the way toward Atty. Cloma’s desire for the eventual union of Freedomland with the Philippines.
On Dec. 4, 1974, Atty. Cloma irrevocably ceded, transferred, conveyed and assigned and waived in favor of the Republic of the Philippines, whatever rights his government acquired under existing international law and Philippine laws over Freedomland. Thereafter, by virtue of PD 1596 (11 June 1978), President Marcos created the Kalayaan Island Group as a municipality of the Province of Palawan with Pag-asa as the government center.
Brought to reality were Atty. Cloma’s words, “We have done our part and duty. The rest now lies in your hands to bring about the realization of this beautiful dream of a greater Philippines.”
The rest is history.
Thanks, many thanks Admiral Tomas Cloma – explorer, dreamer, patriot.
*A Delegate to the 1971 Constitutional Convention, the author was a member of its eight-man Committee on National Territory.