By Edgardo J. Angara
Filipinos, it seems, are like lemmings. We have one of the longest coastlines in the world. We have allowed other countries to grab, seize, and occupy our territories with ease over the course of several decades.
Take Sabah. Covering some 74,000 square kilometers roughly three-fourths the size of Mindanao, Sabah is now one of the states of the Federation of Malaysia. A major exporter of oil, natural gas, and palm oil, Sabah contributes US$100 billion annually to Malaysia’s GDP.
The Philippines’ sovereignty over Sabah is based on the cession made in the late 1600s by the Sultan of Brunei in gratitude to the Sultan of Sulu who helped suppress a rebellion against the Brunei Sultan. In January, 1878, the Sultanate of Sulu then signed a “lease” of the territory for an annual fee of 5,000 Malaysian Dollars (equivalent to roughly US$1,600) to Baron von Overbeck and Alfred Dent who represented a British syndicate, which later became the British North Borneo Company (BNBC). This agreement is at the heart of the dispute, with the British interpreting the deed as sale, rather than as lease.
When the Americans came at the end of the 19th century, the US occupying forces signed an agreement with the Sultan of Sulu allowing the latter to retain its sovereign rights in North Borneo, including Sabah. And the Sulu Sultanate continued to receive lease payments up to this date.
Shortly after the end of World War II, the British secretly annexed Sabah via decree without notice to the landowner, the Sultan of Sulu. Thereafter, the British formed the Federation of Malaysia, and incorporated Sabah as one of its States.
Take another case: Panatag Shoal (Bajo de Masinloc). In 2012, China Maritime Surveillance (CMS) ships entered Panatag Shoal after the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) arrested several Chinese fishermen caught harvesting endangered marine species. After a brief skirmish between 90 armed Chinese vessels and three Filipino bankas, the PCG was forced to abandon Panatag and the Chinese eventually took over. Panatag or Bajo de Masinloc has been the traditional fishing grounds of Filipinos from Luzon since time immemorial.
After the Panatag land grab, China went into furious and frantic dredging and island-building in the Spratlys. And that forced the Philippines to bring the dispute to the United Nations’ Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague and won a sweeping victory against China’s so-called Nine-Dash-Line.
But despite the arbitral tribunal’s clear ruling that the Philippines has exclusive economic rights over the Spratlys and that China’s Nine-Dash-Line claim is invalid, China nonetheless proceeded to militarize the area, building airports, and underground missile bases, disregarding international rule of law. And sadly Manila seems to consent or at the very least condone the usurpation of our own territory in the Spratlys.
And this may be the ultimate self-immolation: Benham Rise. The United Nations recognized Benham Rise as part of our continental shelf, which means it’s part of mainland Luzon. Again, almost with alacrity, Manila allowed China to do exploration and research. And the lame excuse is that because we do not possess our own capability to do our own exploration and research. And as an SOP, the excuse goes, any country willing to do similar exploration, according to Manila’s justification, will also be allowed to do so.
Benham Rise, now called Philippine Rise, probably could become our last life support. Last year, the research vessel of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) together with the private research organization Oceana, founded and operated by the famous marine expert Jacques Cousteau, in fact did a survey on Benham. And their report says Benham potentially has one of the richest gas, mineral and marine resources in the Pacific.
When do we learn to fight for our natural legacy? Are we not depriving future generations of Filipinos of the fruits of the sea, which is their natural legacy?
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