Tomas Cloma: The Audacious Boholano Whose Claim To The Freedomland Has Blossomed Into The Present West Philippines Sea Controversy

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Last July 12, 2016 the UNCLOS (United Nations Convention on Laws of the Seas) decision was advantageous to the Philippines.  The People’s Republic of China or mainland China did not recognize the decision.

According to the decision the 9-dash line claimed by China has no legal basis.  The places claimed by China are within the 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

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It is not mentioned that the start of the controversy was caused by the claim of Atty. Tomas Cloma in what he called the “Free Territory of Freedomland”, which is part of what is now called Spratlys Group of Islands.

Tomas Cloma

Tomas Cloma was born in Panglao, Bohol to the couple Ciriaco Cloma and Irena Arbolente.  He was born in 1904 and died on Sept. 18, 1996 at the age of 92 years.

Since his father was described as a “Spanish settler”, we can assume that the parents can afford to send Tomas to Manila to study.  Tomas Cloma became a lawyer.  Together with this brother Filemon, they engaged in large scale fishing.

After WWII while other entrepreneurs were establishing schools and colleges offering the usual academic courses, Atty. Tomas Cloma decided to establish a maritime school known as the Philippine Maritime Institute (PMI).  With the success of the PMI Atty. Cloma established a name for himself.

Discovery

In 1947 Tomas Cloma and his brother Filemon and the crew of the PMI training ship discovered a group of islands that were uninhabited and unoccupied.  Initially it was kept secret for obvious reason that the islands were teaming with fishes and resources.

Soon it was decided to claim the islands.  The problem was how will you claim the islands?  Where shall you file your claim? Up to the year 1950 Tomas Cloma and his crew kept visiting the place.  When Taiwan and Vietnam found out that the islands were part of the Spratlys, they reacted by saying that they own the place.  However, the other countries could not also establish their ownership of the islands.

The Spratlys were occupied by the Japanese during World War II.  When Japan was defeated it was assumed that the place was owned by the Allies or the United States.  However, the USA did not make a claim of the place.

Filing of Claim

On May 11, 1956 with 40 men and his brother Filemon, Tomas Cloma took formal possession of seven (7) islands of the Spratlys.  He posted copies of his claim on the islands and give copies to the press.  He named the place as “Free Territory of Freedomland.”  He was emboldened to make the claim because the Vice President and Secretary of Foreign Affairs of the Philippines was another Boholano, Carlos P. Garcia.

VP Garcia cautioned Tomas Cloma to be careful not to provoke international conflict.  On July 6, 1956 Cloma declared to the whole world that he established a separate government for Freedomland.  It was not clear as to its sovereignty.  There was a proposal to make it a protectorate of the Philippines, the United States, or the United Nations.

Nobody in Manila took serious consideration of the claims of Atty. Cloma.  Nobody was interested in the godforsaken Spratly group of islands.  It was just taken as a publicity stunt of Atty. Cloma.  In fact he was then jokingly called “Admiral Cloma”.

Meanwhile Atty. Cloma tried to consolidate his claim so that he can exploit the mineral resources of the place, especially “guano” and phosphate rocks used for fertilizers.

The hullabaloo eventually died down but Atty. Cloma silently continued to strengthen his claim to the Freedomland.  He sent men to settle the place.

The claim of Atty. Cloma is basically anchored on the legal principal called res nullius.  Since nobody seems to know who owns the place, then it is a land which nobody owns and can be claimed by someone.

Martial Law

When Martial Law was declared by President Ferdinand Marcos on September 21, 1972 President Marcos wanted that the Freedomland will be make part of the Philippine.  Since Atty. Cloma refused, he was arrested and put in prison.  Eventually Atty. Cloma ceded all his rights to the Philippines for the price of one (1) peso in return for his release from prison.

Even though the Philippines now claim ownership of the Kalayaan group of islands, Atty. Cloma and his successors still continue to claim the place through what they call the “Kingdom of Colonia of St. John” that is based in Sabah, Malaysia.

Marcos’ Moves

President Marcos made national and international legal maneuvers so that the Freedomland will become part of the Philippines.

It was realized that to make a legal claim of ownership, the place must be occupied.  In 1978, basing upon the cession of claim of Atty. Cloma, President Marcos issued Presidential Decree No. 1596 renaming Freedomland as Kalayaan and declaring it as a municipality that is part of the Province of Palawan.  He sent one battalion of marines and 200 civilians to occupy the different islands and provided for a civilian government in order to function as a municipality.

Neighboring Countries

The neighboring countries like Vietnam, China, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia also made claims in different places of the Spratlys.  The standoff continued for a long time until recently when China claimed the effectiveness of its “nine dash” line that effectively claimed about 90% of the South China Sea as belonging to mainland China.

Since it is already known that the South China Sea is rich in mineral resources, the surrounding countries are staking their respective claims.  However, China, with its strong military might is practically claiming the huge portion to include the areas claimed by other countries including the Philippines.

The Philippines cannot match the military might of China so it challenged China in an International Court known as the UNCLOS.

UNCLOS Decision

The UNCLOS decision is said to be favorable to the Philippines.  The Chinese government says that it does not recognize the decision and they will continue to insist on the boundaries of the nine-dash lines.

Bear in mind that the UNCLOS decision did not follow the path taken by President Marcos in actually occupying the Kalayaan and neighboring islands.

The UNCLOS decision is based on the 200 miles Exclusive Economic Zone from the land boundary of a country (Palawan and Luzon).  Since the Kalayaan Island, the artificial reef reclaimed by China, and the Scarborough Reef are within the 200 miles EEZ, it means that China has no legal claim to these places.

What remains now is for the Philippines to find ways and means to make use of the favorable decision of the UNCLOS. (By Jes B. Tirol)



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