PH flag to fly in all 9 occupied Spratly islands
MANILA, Philippines–On Thursday all the nine Philippine-occupied territories in the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea, including the rusty BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal (Second Thomas Shoal), will raise the national flag simultaneously with other military camps on the mainland in celebration of Independence Day.
The flag-raising ceremony will take place at 7 a.m. in all Kalayaan Island Group (KIG) detachments, Navy spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Gregory Fabic told the Inquirer on Wednesday.
Fabic said the time in the KIG detachments—Ayungin Shoal, Pagasa (Thitu) Island, Lawak (Nanshan) Island, Parola (Northeast Cay) Island, Patag (Flat) Island, Kota (Loaita) Island, Rizal (Commodore) Reef, Likas (West York) Island, and Panata (Lankiam Cay) Island—as well as in all units of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) were synchronized with Philippine Standard Time.
While the flag ceremony is done every year in these territories, military historian Jose Antonio Custodio says it has become more significant today in the face of China’s belligerence in the West Philippine Sea, part of the South China Sea within the Philippines’ 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone.
China claims 90 percent of the South China Sea, and has been harassing the small Marine garrison on Ayungin Shoal, Filipino fishermen at Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal off Zambales province, and reclaiming land on Mabini (Johnson South) Reef, Gavin (Gaven) Reefs, Calderon (Cuarteron) Reef and Malvar (Eldad) Reef.
The Philippines has submitted the territorial dispute to the United Nations International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea for arbitration.
The court has ordered China to comment on the Philippine case by Dec. 15.
Toning down rhetoric
China has refused to take part in the proceedings, but has toned down its rhetoric, with Chinese Ambassador to the Philippines Zhao Jianhua saying on Tuesday, Filipino-Chinese Friendship Day, that the dispute between the two countries was “temporary.”
Malacañang on Wednesday welcomed the “change in tone,” but said that “would not stop the Philippines from seeking international arbitration to settle the dispute.”
Presidential spokesman Edwin Lacierda acknowledged the “different levels of exchange” between the Philippines and China, but said that “doesn’t mean just because China is investing in this country, it should stop us from asserting or filing an arbitration case against them.”
He said, however, that except for the territorial dispute, the Philippines’ relations with China have been “very positive.”
Custodio said that Thursday’s Independence Day rites in the Kalayaan group were intended to celebrate the sacrifices of the Filipino revolutionary heroes who fought for freedom from colonial rule, the lack of weapons notwithstanding.
“Fast forward to the present, courageous Filipino soldiers are facing off against the armed coercive might of the Chinese who jealously covet our territories to fuel their imperial ambitions. Lacking sophisticated weapons, with no modern surface warships, missiles and jet fighters, Filipino soldiers in far-flung island garrisons and aboard the rusty hulk of the Sierra Madre are our first and only line of defense against Chinese aggression,” Custodio told the Inquirer in an e-mail.
“A century since independence, the courage and indomitable will of the Filipino remain intact and today in our commemoration of Independence Day this is renewed in our pledge to defend the country and in the example of our Filipino soldiers standing on the sands of the islets of the [Kalayaan Island Group] and within the rusting hulk of the BRP Sierra Madre,” Custodio said.
Holding the line
Despite its decrepit condition, the BRP Sierra Madre holds the line for the Philippines in the dispute for territory with China in the West Philippine Sea.
The Philippines grounded the Sierra Madre on Ayungin Shoal in 1999 in response to China’s illegal occupation of Mischief (Panganiban) Reef four years earlier.
The Sierra Madre remains “very important to us,” said Philippine Fleet commander Rear Adm. Jesus Bernardino.
“It is an extension of our territory. Everywhere it goes, it represents our territory. She is at Ayungin Shoal now. Nobody can contest that it is still our territory,” he said.
Bernardino trained on the Sierra Madre as a young Navy ensign. He was part of the ship’s crew when it transported Filipino performers to various Southeast Asian cities as part of a cultural exchange program sponsored by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean).
Former hospital ship
The Sierra Madre was originally the LST 821 Harnett County, a bemedaled hospital ship that saw action in World War II.
It was transferred to South Vietnam under the Security Assistance Program in 1970 and was named RVNS My Tho (HQ-800).
The United States gave it to the Philippines in 1976 under the Military Assistance Program and the ship was renamed BRP Sierra Madre.
Should the Philippine Navy decide to decommission the Sierra Madre, it would have to inform the US military before it could use parts of the ship.
As the one that did the tactical design of the Sierra Madre, “[the United States] would be part of the process of decommissioning for security reasons to ensure that the scraps of metal won’t be used for other purposes,” Philippine Fleet spokesperson Lt. j.g. Rommel Rodriguez explained.
Bernardino said he remained proud of the Sierra Madre despite its present condition.
“I am still proud of it. It is still serving the Navy. It is still serving the country as a platform for our troops there. Even if [people say] it’s in an advanced stage of deterioration, it is still serving its purpose,” Bernardino said.
\Bernardino also said that contrary to popular belief, the Sierra Madre “can still last many more productive years.”
“It looks rickety, but, no, it’s not,” he said.
Fabic said that after the 7 a.m. flag-raising ceremony, the troops in the Kalayaan group would “go back to their daily tasks.”
And it’s no easy task, to defend a country’s sovereignty.–With a report from Christian V. Esguerra
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