Raphael’s Hand

I wrote this story as a partial requirement for a class back in college. I’m not exactly too proud of it, with its movie cliches, awkward storytelling and common plot, but you can judge yourself. Haha.

–o–

“Sir? Is that you? Come in, come in. Please excuse the mess.”

Francis waved his hand and ushered a tall man in a black suit into his room. It was 1984, and like any other freelance, unorthodox scientist in the Philippines, his room consisted nothing more than a roll-away bed, a black and white TV with big black knobs on one side of its face, and a long table that took most of the remaining space. Beside the table, an uninteresting stool; on the table itself, the poor man’s life work. After a quick scan, the tall man smiled at Francis and sat on the stool. The man was carrying a black briefcase, and after a moment’s hesitation of whether he should place the case beside his seat or on his lap, the man opted for the latter.

Francis sat on the roll-away bed and shook his guest’s hand with enthusiasm. “Jesus Christ. I thought you will never come!”

The man chuckled. “Are you kidding? Good gracious, Mr. Torres. If what you said on the phone was true – imagine the possibilities! This will revolutionize the entire world, nay, the future of humanity!”

Francis laughed but shook his head at the same time. “The credits are not mine, not at all. I only found it. It was God all along, see? The cure has been right under our noses!”

“I do not believe in God, but off to business, shall we? May I see this cure you have talked on the phone? If it were any scientist who talked to us like you did, we would have scoffed – but it was you, and our records told us that you are an amazing scientist.”

Francis smiled and procured a small vial from the breast pocket of his lab coat. The liquid inside was blue and had almost the same texture as a gel. Francis stared at the vial for a moment, mouth etched into a small smile, before turning it on his guest’s open hand.

“It’s beautiful,” said the man, raising the small vial into the air to check its luminosity. It glimmered like a precious diamond under the pale, yellow light of the fluorescent light. “How, Mr. Torres? How did you ever find this… this thing?”

Francis sat at his bed once again, looked outside the window and racked his mind for the details. “Well, everything started when my professor for my masters, the French biologist de Nauvellite, asked me go with him on his research in one of the remote forests of Davao del Sur. While I was there, I stumbled on this very unusual flower. I called de Nauvellite’s attention, but he said that it was only a field of flower-bearing clovers. Christ! I know de Nauvellite has always thought that I’m kind of daft and stupid, but I’m sure that flower ain’t no clover. It was new, and since de Nauvellite won’t have my protest, I took a few samples and left it at my backpack for the duration of the trip.”

Francis cleared his throat, and continued: “After my expedition with de Nauvellite, I went back here and experimented with the flowers. Really, even though he was bad, I don’t blame de Nauvellite when he said that the damn flower looks like a clover. It does; it might even be a deformed family line of clovers if not for its pink bud. de Nauvellite missed that, and missed his chance entirely!”

The man in the black suit interrupted. “Wait, sir. Where in Davao did you find this flower again?”

“A small glade, a few miles north of Digos, near some abandoned Coke factory.”

The man smiled and twirled his fingers, opting Francis to continue.

“So, there I was, experimenting with the extracts of the limited flowers that I have, when one day, out of the blue, I found something amazing under my microscope. It was the pinkness of the bud all along! The bud is pink because the entire flower is packed with siccusalba!”

The tall man took another glance at the small vial on his hands. “Siccusalba. You found a rich source of siccusalba.”

Francis struck a fist on his bed. “Right! Of course, it took a long time to get a pure form of the chemical with only myself, but I did able to make one sample eventually. You’re holding it now.”

The tall man looked behind him and pointed his long finger at a small pile of dry flowers lying idly at one end of the table. “Are those the flowers?”

Francis stood up and checked the crushed flowers on the table. “Yes. They’re beautiful, aren’t they? I’m going to name them Raphael’s Hand if the committee will give me the chance.”

“Did you tell anyone about this?”

“Never! I know the business around this kind of things. That’s why I made sure to call you guys first.”

At this, The tall man opened his briefcase and removed an object underneath a small pile of papers.

It was a revolver.

“W-What’s with the gun?” Francis asked, stammering.

Siccusalba. Do you know that you are not the first man to discover that flower?” the tall man asked. He was not looking at Francis. He was looking at his gun.

Francis stepped back again and felt the wall on his back. He tried to look for an escape route. There was none. The tall man blocked the path toward both door and window.

“Hey,” the man said, and this time, he turned his head back at Francis. His cold stare was far from the warm pleasantry that he showed earlier. “I’m asking you a question. Do you know?”

The scientist replied with a reluctant shake of his head.

“Ah-ha.” The tall man stood up and shook his own head. “Of course. You know why?”

Another shake of the head from the other party.

“You never heard of it because she was killed.”

“K-Killed?” Francis repeated.

The tall man noticed the perplexed look on the scientist’s eyes. “You have a question and I think I know what it is. You’re wondering why, aren’t you?”

Francis mustered the courage to speak. “Why? The government, I thought—”

“Well, you thought wrong,” the tall man interrupted, “The government is a business, Mr. Torres. It is one hell of an all-encompassing enterprise. We run profits from everything. It’s just what we are and what we do. Cancer – well, you might as well say that we profit from that too. When people stay in the hospital, we get a cut. It doesn’t matter if it’s private or public, we always get a cut. Pharmaceuticals, however, that’s a totally different ball game. The underlying network of the whole thing is risky. Your drug, well – it’s bad for the business. It’s too… revolutionary. We can’t get a cut from it. We’ll lose some of our profits it that thing goes public. Siccusalba is too easy to replicate if you only know how. Believe me, Mr. Torres, when I say that I’m sorry. It’s just how the world works.”

Francis closed his eyes and knelt in front of the tall man. He was lost for words.

The last thing that Francis saw was the flowers on the table. Raphael’s Hand. He tried to smile but it was too late. A pink flash of light – after that, there was nothing more.

And King Tut Shoots For Three!

I cheered for Miami Heat today.

A short trivia: I do not love sports. I mean, I don’t exactly hate sports, but I certainly don’t welcome it with open arms either. Hell, looking at guys battle it out – sweating, cursing, touching butts – is enough to deplete my entire energy supply for the day. I cannot even remember if my brothers and I played a single game of basketball when there is a basketball court right across our house.  I guess not.

(To my credit: I did play a round of basketball back in high school. It was for a Physical Education class. We won. Ha! Take that, Michael Jordan.)

Anyway, the story actually goes back four or five days ago, when I received a message from J-. He’s a friend from law school and a basketball fanatic. Anyway, I don’t remember what I was doing when I received his message. I think I was reading articles on Cracked.

J-: Ken. Do you know any website with live streaming of the NBA?

I leaned back on my chair, crossed my arms and began to think. My friends have always flocked at me if they need something from the Internet ASAP. I do not mean to brag, but I have mastered my Google-fu after years and years of searching rare porn clips and risqué pictures online. If the Internet has it, I can provide it. And the Internet, as we all know, has everything.

I shot back a reply. I hate sports, I know, but I cannot turn down a challenge on my Google-fu. I was already scouring the web at this point.

Me: You’re asking me about basketball? You know I don’t like basketball.

J-: I thought you have everything, man.

I smirked. You only hear that phrase being uttered on shady drug deals.

Me: Fiiiine. What teams?

J-: OKC vs. Lakers.

Me: OKC?

J-: Oklahoma City Thunder.

Me: Okay, wait.

I do not know about you but I do not have any inkling about Oklahoma. I know it’s one of the 50 states and some bombing occured there on 1995 (I read that on Reader’s Digest), but aside from that, I do not know anything more about Oklahoma, much more the Thunders. On the other hand, I do know the Los Angeles Lakers. I guess they’re famous or something.

Anyway, the task was easy. I found a website offering live streaming and sent the link to J-.

J-: Thanks! Welcome to the NBA World.

Me: You’re welcome, dude. Remember: Kenneth’s General Goods and Services, open from Monday to Saturday, 8am to 1am. Haha. Refer your friends to me.

With nothing to do and the night still young, I decided to fool around and irk J-. I know he loves underdogs. My theory is that Lakers, being more popular than this Oklahoma team, J- is betting on OKC  to win the game.

Me: I think Oklahoma will lose. Lakers is more popular. And they’re Los Angeles, dude. Los Angeles.

J-: What? LAL is weak, man. They’re old.

J-: And Kobe’s a goddamn braggart.

I smiled. J- took the bait. That, or he’s bored. Haha. Anyway, I’m a little proud of myself. I know Kobe Bryant! Haha. I keep hearing his name when my friends talk about basketball. He’s got some bad rap or something, but I do know he’s one badass player.

J-: Oklahoma, on the other hand: they’re simple guys. They don’t like to brag.

J-: I’m quite disappointed Memphis took the boot. They’re the blue collar workers.

Me: Memphis? How did Egypt come into the picture?

A few points need to be raised. First, I don’t know how blue collar workers can still qualify to play NBA. Isn’t basketball a full-time job for these guys? And second. Memphis? Isn’t that a city in Egypt? When did King Tut decide to play a basketball league over half a world away?

Anyway, my conversation with J- is actually quite an eye-opener. He revealed that Memphis is actually a city in Tennessee, that Canadians also play NBA, that everybody hates Miami Heat because they stole star players from small teams such as the Toronto Raptors and Cleveland Cavaliers, that Cleveland is not a fictional place invented by Seth MacFarlane, and many more. It is interesting and I am not saying that to be polite. I mean, I am yet to be a fan of the game, but damn, there really is more to basketball than what meets the eye.

Flashforward the morning earlier. I was watching a local show on TV when I looked at the clock and realized that it’s time for my favorite show at the History Channel. While I was surfing the channel, I chanced upon a game between Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat on ESPN. Normally, I would spend a minimum of 5 seconds on sports games and move on.

Not today.

I decided to watch, cheered for Miami Heat because they appear to be losing during the first half of the game, and did a small victory dance when they recovered and won against the Pacers, 101-93. I know. I’m quite surprised myself. Haha. I never thought to be cheering for real live people and at basketball no less.

I am actually quite anticipating for Game 5. I hope Heat wins again.

A toast, ladies and gentlemen, to basketball.

Poems of Earth, Fire and Water

peanuts

on the cupboard:

a half-full bottle of peanuts

together with an empty can

of mushroom soup

above the stove:

a boiling pot

on the coffee table:

a framed picture of Mother

burnt on the edges

(faded but otherwise okay)

on the trash:

an empty can of mushroom soup

above the stove:

what more of it but a boiling pot and

hot water reaching for the top

on the chair:

a white rose

the stove:

the knob is pointing on some little print

and the fire rages like wildfire

(feral but otherwise okay)

on the cupboard:

what cupboard-

(ah, the new one, the unburnt one)

same half-bottle of peanuts

above the stove:

the water had spilled over

and i have nothing but quenched fire

and water quickly cooling.

.

why the planets do not fall to the sun

as the rubber on your shoes bend

on the persistent granite

from the speed of your dash

to an undetermined finish line

you recognize

the truth of your existence:

you run to escape the allure

of a nameless burning rose

.

hollow earth theory

beneath these stones

roaring

shaking

breathing

is a huge green dragon

.

the last of its kind

Zombie Philosophy, Part One

I decided to take a three-day hiatus from my social circle for reasons I am too tired to explain here. I deactivated my Facebook, abandoned my Twitter, closed my Thunderbird, told three or four of my friends to take care of my affairs, and left my phone on the bedroom table. Aside from this blog of which only a handful of my friends know of, I am completely cut off from my friends. I do not care much about Facebook, Twitter and e-mail, but the decision to shelf my phone is what made this hiatus quite challenging. I am never without my phone. Well, until now.

I woke up with no plan in my head. The hiatus began exactly the midnight before, and with nothing to do and lots of hours to spare, I decided to groom up and visit the mall. My initial plan was to look for a new book, but as I passed the arcades and saw no one was playing House of the Dead 4, I cannot resist to play one short round. Although I have probably completed the game about a dozen times and played it for twice that number, this shoot-it-up game has never lost its appeal on me. I am not really much of a Tekken guy.

I triggered the secret code to show my score (it is turned off by default for reasons I cannot fathom), swiped my arcade card, and started to shoot my way through the horde of zombies as Player One.

I am no expert of the game, but I am no amateur either. I delivered head shot after head shot. My points racked up. My accuracy score never lost its momentum. The bosses fell on their knees while inflicting the least damage possible. It was, in summary, a massacre.

I was watching the short cutscene after finishing Chapter 3 of the game when a kid, probably 7 or 8, stood beside me to watch. I looked at him and saw that he was simply itching to play the game. You can see it in his brown eyes. Well, to give him credit, it is a zombie game. Everybody loves (killing) zombies.

“Hey,” I called out, “do you want to play?”

The boy shook his head, smiling.

“Where are your parents?” I asked.

It took him a few seconds to reply. “Only my sister, sir. She’s in the grocery.”

“Well,” I said, swiping my card and giving him the gun for Player Two, “you can have this then. I need help.”

The title card for the next chapter appeared on the screen. The scary opening music blasted from the surround speakers. The boy immediately took the gun from my hands, nodded his head, looked at the big screen before us, and lost his smile. There was a look of concentration on his face. I smiled at this, positioned my middle finger on the trigger and waited.

I need not wait longer. The zombies attacked and we shoot – the game begins!

As we fought our way from the subway to the surface, looking for a way to find and destroy the source of the zombie apocalypse, I realized that my young partner is a complete amateur. He was shooting in the wrong places. He forgot to reload at the most crucial moments. He kept shaking the gun when the moment did not call for shaking. I kept saving his ass, killing the zombies who went after him, that I forgot to save my own damn ass. At the end of the day, after we fell the big fat Temperance, I only had 2 lives left, my partner 4 lives, and one credit left in my arcade card.

I sighed and docketed the gun for a while as the cutscene for the next chapter began. I looked at the kid. He was staring intently at the screen, his finger still on the trigger of the gun. I smiled, despite the hardship of trying to actually finish the game and saving his life. At least the boy is having fun.

“Hey,” I called out. “Relax. The game is yet to start.”

He grinned at me. He relaxed his grip of the gun but kept his finger on the trigger.

The title card for Chapter 5 lit on the screen. My heart stopped and I immediately felt pity for the boy. I forgot that I hate this Chapter. I really hate this Chapter. The boss for this stage, Star, is a complete jerk and a cheat. I will get to that later.

The boy and I started good. Three minutes into the game, the boy was finally comfortable with the gun and was going Rambo with the zombies. His shots were far from perfect, but they did nicely. They do, indeed. There was a slight trouble when the zombie horde went after him, but with my assistance and my partner’s don’t-mess-with-my-unlimited-ammo-gun attitude, we eliminated the entire horde. The boy lost one life during the crazy shooting, but that was only because the hit came from fucking nowhere. I added one to mine, thanks to a bonus, so as we stood on the lobby of Goldman Headquarters, the source of all evil, my partner and I were at three lives each.

It was then Star came swooping with anger on his heart and vengeance on his soul.

Let me describe this scum Star. Although a monster, Star appears as a humanoid with pale white skin and an almost featureless face. He wears a red long coat and have knives as his primary weapons. His weakness is the rather obvious large scar on his chest. It would have been easy for anyone to shoot the scar if not for Star’s ability to hover around the screen like a maniac under the influence of meth. This makes shooting him incredibly difficult as he sometimes levitate off-screen. During my entire lifetime of playing the game, I never escaped Star without losing a life.

Anyway, so there we are, Star hovering before us – taunting and knives glimmering.

We began to shoot.

“The chest,” I said to the boy. “Hit him on the chest.”

Although the boy tried his best to hit the increasingly infuriating boss, his trigger finger was no match against Star’s speed. I tried to compensate, but all it took was a short delay on reloading my light gun and Star was able to slash his way through our defenses and decrease our lives to two each.

“Okay,” I said to the boy, anticipating Star’s next move, “keep hitting the guy, okay? Keep hitting the guy.”

As I predicted, Star stopped to hover like a crazy maniac and began to shoot pink projectiles from his knives. As the boy kept hitting the now rather stable Star, I shot the projectiles awayWe successfully deflected the deluge of pink projectiles and the boy managed to pound Star’s chest with a hundred lead bullets. I felt proud of ourselves. The boy and I make a pretty good team, I thought.

Bloodied, Star thrust his arm sideways and began to rotate in an amazing speed. This is his last attack; the last show of the town. Star slowly hovered toward us, picking up speed, his knives slashing through air and the wind beating on our faces. The boy and I raised our guns together, hoping for the best.

We shoot and Star danced along with the bullets.

It was going well until there was a swift flash of stainless steel across our faces and everything went pitch-black.

Random Musings

This is a conversation my friend I- and I had yesterday. There really is nothing here but, as the title suggests, random musings. If you are the type of person who likes to eavesdrop, however, I guess this is for you. 

—0—

I was having coffee with a friend yesterday when the subject turned into love.

It was 4pm.

“What is your perfect date?” my friend I- asked, eyeing a cute girl sitting alone across our table. She was probably in her teens, wearing a beautiful yellow dress, reading a nondescript book, her right leg dangling from the other. She looked Japanese, Chinese. Aside from an old gentleman reading the daily newspaper outside and the two baristas by the counter, the coffee shop was quite empty for a Monday afternoon. There was a lot of people in the mall, but no one was entering the coffee shop. I don’t know why. Lazy coffee season, I guess?

I raised my head from the book I was reading. “What?”

“What is your perfect date?”

“Why would you ask me that?”

“I don’t know,” he replied. I turned my gaze at the girl I- was looking at. She was cute.

I shifted my eyes back to I-. “Well, a movie date, I guess. Or a dinner at a fancy restaurant. A quiet time by ourselves.”

I- pushed his cup away from him and continued to look at the cute girl. His cup was already empty. We ordered two small cups of cafe latte an hour earlier, thinking no one can possibly mess up a latte. Later, after we had our first sip, we realized that this shop could. Yikes.

“I like your last one,” I- said. “My perfect date was to sit by the lake, at night, and look at the stars.”

I closed my book – it was a Spanish-English dictionary – and laid it down on the table, cover up. “That sounds boring, dude. And a little cliche. Besides, what lake are you talking about? We live in the fucking Philippines. I don’t know any accessible lake around, much more at night.”

He laughed. The girl across our table caught his laughter, raised her head momentarily, glanced at us as we stared at her, and resumed reading her book. She probably get stares all the time.

“Hey,” I- said, finally looking at me instead of the girl. “Now that you’re single, what are your plans?”

I hesitated. I don’t have any plans. “Enjoy life, I guess.”

I- snorted, grabbed my dictionary, flipped around some of the pages, and laid it back on the table. “You need contingency plans, dude. Date someone. Don’t tell me you still have feelings for the girl?”

“Of course,” I said, grabbing the dictionary away from his immediate grasp. “You cannot put an end to that so quickly.”

“Didn’t you tell me a few years back that you like someone here, in Davao?” he asked. His gaze returned to the girl. There was no much difference except it was now her left leg that was dangling by her right leg. I tried to spy what book she was reading, but there was no title in the cover. Weird.

“She has a boyfriend. Well, sorta. Besides, I rather stay single for a while. I am not up for commitment. Too fast, I guess.”

“You think you’re so hot, huh?” I- asked, smiling.

I smiled back, my answer without hesitance. “Yes.”

“That’s the confidence,” he said and slapped me on my back.

“Wait. I do have some plans.”

“What is it?” I- asked, suddenly curious. Or I think he was. I can never decipher any of this guy’s emotions. He has this happy, smiling look for everything. It’s probably the reason I hanged out with him today. He’s a ball of awesome sunlight, and God knows how much sunlight I need now.

“Myrtle-” I started, but he quickly cut me off. That time, I could tell he was exasperated.

“Myrtle again. Dude, you’re starting to get crazy. She’s a celebrity-,” I- made sure to emphasize the word, “-and you are never going to get her. And Jesus Christ, she’s 17, man. You’re 20. Two-zero. She’s a teenager.” Again, another emphasis.

I laughed at his reaction. “You never know, man. Chances, chances. As I said to my friend, uncertainty is better than absolutes.”

To give a little background for the uninitiated, and just because I love talking about her – Myrtle Sarossa is one of the housemates in the reality show Pinoy Big Brother. To cut the story short, I was immediately smitten when I saw her on TV. Add to the recipe my recent breakup and you have this recipe for absurd love probabilities going on my head. I guess I am crazy, yes. I am actually laughing as I am writing this short explanation. Anyway-

I- shook his head. “You’re so jologs, Ken.”

“Hey,” I said, “I cannot really see how watching local teleseryes or reality TV show make people jologs. We’re just having fun. I don’t call you metal head or a drug addict for listening to those rock’n’roll shit you hear everyday.”

He raised both of his arms jokingly. “Okay, okay. You don’t have to be all defensive, dude.”

At this remark, we suddenly noticed the cute girl across our table pocket the nondescript book back at her white handbag, take one last look at her (probably) empty cup, stand up, and leave the coffee shop. As the security guard opened the glass doors for her, the girl turned her head back and shot I- with a smile.

Of course, I was perplexed.

I turned my head at I-. “How did you do that? You always get their attention.”

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders and turned his attention at his phone. Someone sent him a text message. “I don’t know,” he said.

“Damn you,” I whispered, but with a smile. I took the dictionary again, flipped to the page where I left off, and began to read. It was 4.30pm, it was a lovely day, and everything appeared to be all right with the world. In a way, I am satisfied.

Three Poems of War and Hopelessness

metropolis

the streets were filled with sorrow

when a young child, aged seven,

lost his beloved toy

at one of the intersections

of tall skyscrapers and

blazing neon lights

only to finally realize

that the skyscrapers were

really mischievous giants

stealing little firetruck toys

.

when evening fell

when evening fell on MSS Lusca:

.

a thousand arms

reached from the ocean

destroying the hull, the mast

into small planks of wood and cloth

.

(on the radar: a massive beeping dot)

.

from the horizon

a rain of metal and fire

.

the arms subsided

the captain rejoiced

.

when the sea split apart

and St. Augustine emerged

fully naked and fire raging

.

did we mine the last hydrogen?

when we exhausted all possibilities

we hauled the sun from the heavens

(what is it that you call those things again?

ah, yes, the Leviathan, wonderful how it sounds

than Large-Scale Extraction Satellites)

and created machines of wonder

.

ask yourself:

did your lovely iRobot protect you

when the big ball of fire

exploded into endless space?


A Primer on the Spratly Islands Dispute

As a Filipino, I have always been proud of our race. Philippines may be one of the lower-tier countries in Southeast Asia, but we are proud of who we are and what we do. There are times, however, that this pride gets in the way of cool and rational thinking. A quick review of the history of the Philippines will show us the overwhelming insecurity of the Filipino race after years of abuse, slavery, and oppression from other nations. As a result, we rise our fists in impetuous rage at the slightest provocation. I believe that this is mob mentality and one of the many black spots on our otherwise beautiful culture.

The goal of this primer is to provide information, nothing more and nothing less, over the ongoing Spratly Islands dispute between China and the Philippines. I will not take sides. I will not attempt to solve the issue. I only want to take a little of your time to outline the information being provided to the public, hoping that this little project will divert what now appears to be a Cold War between the two countries to a battle of the mind. We should always remember that stupid wars have been fought over simple misunderstanding. I hope this dispute will not come into that.

This will not be a simple issue. I will try to explain everything in simple terms, referencing essential information when necessary, but terminology and research can only do much. The rest is up to you, Reader.

.

Is there any disclaimer?

Yes, there is. First of all, the Reader has to understand that I am not a lawyer, a historian, a government official, or even someone with intricate knowledge of the Islands or the dispute. I am only a law student, and even that has no merit at all. Second, this is not an original research. All information that you are going to read are derived from various Internet and print sources which are referenced at the end of the article. I merely summarized the essential details for your easy reading. Third. Although I checked every information below to be true, there will be always that tragic flaw which I undoubtedly missed.

As a final note – yes, you may use the information below in any (legal) way possible. The purpose of the primer is to inspire rational thinking after all. However, if you are going to give a report or partake in formal debate using this information, be aware that that is a very bad idea and you should probably research more into the issue. Thank you.

.

What are the Spratly Islands?

The Spratly Islands is an archipelago of more than 100 small islands, cays, and reefs. It spans over 410,000 square kilometers of central South China Sea and totals to over four square kilometers of land. The islands are thought to be volcanic in origin. Although the islands are not suitable for planting crops, research around the area has shown probability of a rich source of oil under the seabed. As of now, the main sources of trade in the area are fishery, shipping, and on a smaller degree, tourism.

Spratly Islands is only its English name. The other claimant countries also have their own name for the group of islands. Although it was originally known as ‘Horsburgh’s Storm Island’, the Admirality renamed it ‘Spratly Islands’ after Richard Spratly, master of British whaler Cyrus South Seaman, who sighted the scattered islands on 1843 and published it in The Nautical Magazine during the same year.

Spratly Islands is known as Kapuluang Kalayaan in the Philippines; Nansha Islands (南沙群島) by the Chinese; and Truong Sa by the Vietnamese.

.

What is Scarborough Shoal?

Scarborough Shoal lies outside of the Spratly Islands. It is not exactly a shoal, i.e., a single mass of sandbank, but rather an archipelago of small islands and reefs on its own. Although Scarborough is almost similar to Spratly, it is significantly much smaller, occupying only 150 square kilometers of the South China Sea. I believe the comment made by Colonel Bayley – a South African colonial military commander commissioned under the British Army from 1877 to 1892 – of the archipelago best describes the beautiful yet terrifying landscape and history of the land mass:

The Scarborough shoal was seen about four miles distant, a high rock, abruptly rising from the sea some hundred feet high, with breakers dashing over it, foaming and roaring most terrifically. The wind had completely subsided, leaving an enormous swell mountains high, driving us toward the fatal rock, where a Chinaman named “Scarborough” had been wrecked some years before and every soul perished (parts of the wreck having been afterwards discovered by sloops sent in search of her), from whence the shoal derived its name.

Scarborough Shoal is known as Huangyan Island (黃岩島) by the Chinese.

.

Why are the Spratly Islands important?

First, there is a rich economy to be had in the Islands. It is a prime fishing spot and can also serve as a trade route between mercantile countries. On top of that, there are also reports of vast natural gas and oil reserves deep in the seabed.  More than economy, however, is sovereignty. The country who controls a majority of the Islands also controls the South China Sea. The country can build naval forts, block enemy trades, and well, generally reign supreme over the other countries who need the optimum trade route most. It is a dangerous, terrible power which all the claimant countries seek to have.

.

What is the history behind the Spratly Islands?

14th century: The ancient Chinese maps, Shengjiao guangbei tu and Hunyi jiangli tu, were dated to have been made around this century. The combined map shows a group of islands called ‘Thousand Li Stretch of Sands’ and ‘Ten-Thousand Li of Stone Pools’ which the Chinese alleges to be the Spratly Islands.

18th century: Le Quy Don, a Vietnamese polymath and government official, recorded that Truong Sa (an island west of Spratly) belongs to the Quang Ngãi District and that the Vietnamese did a shipping trade around the area.

early 19th century: Vietnamese maps record the Spratly Islands grouped with the Paracel Islands, a small archipelago of islets and reefs near Vietnam and China that is almost similar to the Spratlys. They called these islands Bai Cat Vang or the Golden Sandbanks.

1885: Vietnam became part of French Indochina, the French colonial empire in Southeast Asia.

1927: The Chinese Civil War started.

1933: France occupied part of the Spratly Islands, claiming them in behalf of Vietnam. The Republic of China challenged this move.

1939: World War II erupted. Japan occupied some of the islands in Spratly as a submarine base.

1940: Germany captured France. The management of French Indochina transferred from the French Third Republic to Vichy France.

1941: After the war in the Pacific, France gave up the entirety of French Indochina to the Japanese which, in turn, established the Empire of Vietnam.

1945: Japan surrenders to the Allied Powers, effectively ending the war. The Republic of China reasserts its claim to the entirety of Spratly.

1946: The First Indochina War started between French troops and the Viet Minh. The Republic of China seized Itu Alba Island, the largest island out of all the Spratly group of islands, and established permanent physical presence around the area.

1947: Tomás Cloma, a Filipino lawyer and fishing magnate, discovered some of the uninhabited Spratly Islands. He was aspiring to open a cannery and guano deposits in the Islands as part of his fishing enterprise.

1949: The Chinese Civil War ended with the split of China into two – Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China.

1950: The Republic of China withdraws its troops from Spratly as they retreat from the Communist Party of China to Taiwan.

1951: Japan signs the Treaty of San Francisco, where they renounced all claims to the Spratly Islands. During the treaty, the Soviet Union proposes that the Islands be given to China. This was overwhelmingly rejected. Afterwards, Vietnam declared that the islands be part of their territory. This was not contested by the other delegates.

1954: The First Indochina War ended, which resulted to the split of Vietnam into two – the North and the South. South Vietnam continued to exercise military presence over the majority of the Spratly Islands.

1956: Cloma and 40 of his men returned to formally claim the eastern portion of the Spratly Islands. He posted notices in each of the uninhabited islands where he claimed the islands as his own. He called the islands Freedomland. The Republic of China challenged this claim and returned their troops to the islands as defensive measure.

1958: The People’s Republic of China issued a declaration defining their territorial waters which included the Spratly Islands. Pham Vam Dong, prime minister of North Vietnam, accepted this declaration; however, international scholars argue that as the Spratly Islands is part of South Vietnam, Pham Van Dong has no legal right to accept or reject any declaration regarding the Spratly Islands.

1959: The Second Indochina War, known popularly as the Vietnam War, started between North and South Vietnam.

1968: The Philippines first sent troops to the Spratly Islands.

1974: Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos imprisoned Cloma and forced him to cede his private claim to the Spratly Islands for one peso. Cloma submitted, thus transferring ownership of the islands to the Republic of the Philippines. Marcos changed the name of the islands to Kalayaan.

1975: The Vietnam War ended after the fall of Saigon and with the victory of North Vietnam.

1976: The North and South Vietnam is reunified to form the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

1979: Malaysia begins to annex the southern portion of the Spratly Islands.

1983: The Chinese Toponymy Committee publicized the approved names of the 159 islands, reefs, islets, and shoals in the South China Sea, including the Spratly Islands.

1984: Brunei asserts that under the United Nations Law of the Sea, their Exclusive Economic Zone extends to some part of the Spratly Islands because they are under the same continental shelf as their country’s domain.

1999: A French oil company found ancient Chinese pottery and other treasures from the bottom of the South China Sea near the Spratlys. The pottery was dated to be from the 15th century.

2002: The Association of Southeast Nations (ASEAN) and the People’s Republic of China signed the ‘Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea’ which stipulates that the nations claiming sovereignty over the Spratly Islands must commit to the status quo. This means that no claimant nation should erect new structure over the disputed territories and thus can only maintain establishments already existing during the time of the declaration.

2004: The unified Vietnam state asserted its claim to the Spratly Islands.

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Who is claiming what and how?

People’s Republic of China and Taiwan

Both countries lay claim to all of the Spratly Islands as well as Scarborough Shoal. If you go back to the history of the Spratly Islands, you can see that the Republic of China (now Taiwan) has maintained physical presence on the Islands except a brief period from 1950 to 1956 where they have to retreat as result of the Chinese Civil War. This presence, together with tangible evidence that they have been on the Islands for hundreds of years dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, serves as the primary basis of their claims.

The Republic of the Philippines

The Republic of the Philippines has two grounds for their claim of the Spratly Islands – legal and geographical. It should be noted that the Republic does not seek to claim all of the islands but only the eastern portion of it.

Let us tackle the legal ground first. According to the Philippines, when Japan renounced their claim on the Islands in 1951, the islands became res nullius and thus open for acquisition. Res nullius is Latin for nobody’s property. If an object is res nullius, it can be validly acquired by whoever declares it as his or her own. In the case of the Spratly Islands, when Japan renounced their claim, the Islands became terra nullius, a specific kind of res nullius, which means  ‘no man’s land’. Thus, when Tomás Cloma declared the uninhabited islands as his own in 1956, he became the owner of these islands. When he sold the Islands to the Republic for one peso, the Republic of the Philippines became the owner of the disputed land.

The geographical ground is not as easy to explain but let me try, shall we? According to the 1982 United Nations Convention of the Land and the Sea or UNCLOS, a country has sole exploitation rights over external waters 200 nautical miles from the nearest baseline. This is the Exclusive Economic Zone or EEZ. As a general rule, the baseline is the low-water line, i.e., the farthest level that the seawater can reach during low tide. However, in cases where the country is an archipelago or deeply indented, straight baselines may be used. Think of it as some sort of a connect-the-dots game where the dots are the farthest low-water line of each indent reaching to the sea. If you apply the straight baselines rule, the EEZ of the Philippines extends well to the Spratly Islands and the Scarborough Shoal.

The problem, however, with both the legal and geographical claims is that they assume that the Islands are terra nullius in the first place. The UNCLOS cannot unjustly claim for one country what has already been claimed by another country.

Brunei and Malaysia

Brunei and Malaysia do not lay claim to all of the Islands but only the southern portion which their respective continental shelves can reach.

Like the Republic of the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia principally use the UNCLOS as ground for their claims. According to the UNCLOS, a country still has exclusive rights to harvest minerals in the subsoil (but not the creatures) even if it is well over the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone, provided that it does not exceed 350 nautical miles and that the subsoil is part of the country’s continental shelf. Brunei and Malaysia claim that their respective continental shelves extend to the disputed Islands.

Vietnam

Vietnam does not lay claim to all but only a majority of the Islands.

Like Taiwan and the People’s Republic of China, Vietnam use historical fact as evidence that they occupied the Islands since the 17th century. The French, who annexed Vietnam in 1885 to be a part of their colonial empire, recognized this right and claimed the Islands in behalf of Vietnam. Moreover, during the peace treaty with Japan at San Francisco, the other delegates did not contest when Vietnam declared the Islands to be theirs. They are the only country to establish a communal district in the Islands.

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Who owns Spratly Islands and Scarborough Shoal?

Like I said in the Introduction, this primer does not mean to take sides. In my opinion, however, historical sovereignty reigns supreme more than geographical sovereignty. The problem with historical sovereignty, however, is how fickle history can be. For Vietnam, People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan to rightfully claim the Islands, they must be able to prove that (1) they occupied the Islands first, and (2) that they did not abandon or ceased to own the Islands which will give way for other countries to claim the Islands. It is only when these two requisites are proved not to exist that the other countries who allege the Islands to be terra nullius – the Philippines, Brunei, and Malaysia – can validly claim the Islands. This is a battle, therefore, not of arms but of conflicting evidences. I only hope that it stays that way.

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What’s next?

You’re next. Do not stop here. Do your research. Gather evidences. Engage in casual debate with family and friends. The most important advice that I can give, however, is to always respect your enemy. The recent ‘cyberwar’ between China and the Philippines is nothing but immaturity at its worst. The Islands may be a vital economic resource, but do we – not only the Philippines but also the other countries – need to sacrifice honor and go that low to defame the other country? Think about it. We are civilized people after all.

Anyway, for all that it’s worth, I hope that this primer helped some of you to obtain some information about the ongoing dispute. If there is a fact that I was able to miss, to credit, or to check as true, do not hesitate to send me a message at my Contact page. This primer will not go far with my skill. I need your help and I need it bad. Peace, brother!

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References:

APA? MLA? Nah. I have my own reference guide. Let’s be casual, okay? Good. Awesome. Cool.

1. The Wikipedia pages about the Spratly Islands, Scarborough Shoal, the Spratly Islands dispute, French IndochinaVichy France, Vietnam, China, Japan, the Republic of the Philippines, the First Indochina War, the Vietnam War, World War II, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Tomás Cloma, Richard Spratly, Res and terra nullius, and Treaty of San Francisco. Accessed 1 May 2012.

2. Diary of Colonel Bayly: 12th Regiment. 1796 – 1830. Published 1896. Colonel Bayly’s description of Scarborough Shoal can be found in page 108.

3. CIA – The World Factbook on its description of the Spratly Islands. Accessed 1 May 2012.

5. Historical Evidence to Support China’s Sovereignty over Nansha Islands. Posted 17 November 2000. Accessed 1 May 2012.

6. China’s War With Vietnam, 1979: Issues, Decisions, and Implications. Published 1987. The territorial dispute over Spratly Islands can be found in page 48.

7. China’s Criticism of the early Vietnamese maps. Posted 2004. Accessed 1 May 2012.

8. Spratly Islands History Timeline. Accessed 2 May 2012.

9. Asia-Pacific Undersea treasure chest stirs up tensions. Posted 29 April 1999. Accessed 1 May 2012.

10. Q&A: South China Sea dispute. Posted 19 July 2011. Accessed 2 May 2012.

11. The Spratly Islands Dispute: Why is this important?. Posted 13 October 2011. Accessed 2 May 2012.

12. United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea or UNCLOS. Promulgated 1982.

13. Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. Promulgated 2002.