Dearest Juan dela Cruz,
Perhaps you do not remember me, for my grandeur has faded through time. I still remember you in my dreams. I can still recall how your restless and youthful vigor became my driving force to protect you at all costs. I still remember you being full of hopes and dreams, and up to this moment I am still in awe because of your ambitions for a wonderful future.
But what happened to you? Your restlessness turned into disinterest, and you allowed history to forget you. I am still hopeful that my efforts of protecting you will not be put to waste, for I do not want to be renamed after a Chinese general. I, too, am a Filipino, but I am worried of our fate as a nation.
I hope you have never forgotten me, the same way I have never forgotten you in my dreams.
I will always remain yours.
Who remembers the BRP Sierra Madre?
Back in 2013, newsmen- both from foreign and local news outlets- braved the waves to visit the BRP Sierra Madre and showed to us the condition of the once-revered tank landing ship of the country. Its once-lustered glow and pride has been replaced with rust and massive holes. Surely, the rusted tank landing ship was made a point of ridicule by many.
For one cannot fathom why our only defense is a rusted landing ship doled out of the remnants of the Vietnam War, at this point when China flexes its military muscle with high-powered missile cruisers and jet fighters that constantly patrol the disputed territories in the West Philippine Sea.
To make matters worse, the Philippine Navy did not seem to mind that our only line of defense is a gargantuan scrap metal. While repairs were made to make the BRP Sierra Madre “minimally habitable”, it seems that the BRP Sierra Madre would remain there as our only frontier against wanton military aggression from China.
Suffice it to state at this point, however: the BRP Sierra Madre is a necessary evil. Necessary, because it is the beacon that formidably stands in the midst of the meekness of the Philippine government to stand its ground on the disputes over at Kalayaan Islands Group. Evil, because it seems to be a point of embarrassment, nay disinterest, of the Filipinos that our government opts to have a rusted landing ship serve as the face of our armed defense against wanton aggression by China.
Forgive the negative description of the BRP Sierra Madre. Any Filipino who knows the condition of the landing ship asks the question: How could that ship protect us? At this point when the stealth age of military craftsmanship has surpassed the 40 mm guns and the 3”/50 caliber guns that the armaments of the BRP Sierra Madre boast, it is supposed to be the high time to revamp our armaments, right? Wrong. To the Philippine Navy, the BRP Sierra Madre stands as a mere symbol- an assertion of our claim. They even rehabilitated it, as if its former glory can be restored.
Be that as it may, our sovereignty depends on that scrap metal, and the eleven soldiers of the Philippine Marines deployed to man the landing ship turned outpost. And because of this unfortunate reality, hope is lost for the Filipino. The BRP Sierra Madre, in one way or another, represents the present state of the Filipino spirit: tarnished, rusted, and stripped of the bare essentials.
Who remembers the BRP Sierra Madre?
Yes. It is that rusty tank landing ship beached along the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. It represents the Philippine claim over the Spratly Islands in the ongoing dispute over at the West Philippine Sea. It is old, dilapidated, and obviously obsolete. Apart from the small Philippine flaglets that we have planted along the rocks of the Scarborough Shoal, the small community over at Pag-asa Island, and the soldiers deployed over some six other islands, the BRP Sierra Madre is the closest we have to a concrete structure.
The name of the ship is no less distinguished than that which it represents. The Sierra Madre, that beautiful mountain range which stretches over the plains from Cagayan to Quezon, remains undaunted as it is. It serves as our natural barrier against the ravishing typhoons that come our way, particularly along the plains of Central Luzon, Cagayan, and Quezon Province. The mighty array of mountains that stretch along the east coast of Luzon is indeed a formidable frontier against the stronger forces of nature.
However, like any other fate that almost all mountains in the Philippines have went through, the Sierra Madre has lost its beauty and strength because of the incessant cutting of trees and the uncontrolled human activity along its lower portion.
And, like the mountain it represents, the BRP Sierra Madre suffers the same fate: its once commanding strength has since faded with the passing of time, and has since been tarnished and deprived of its grandeur. The twilight is nearing upon it.
Who remembers the BRP Sierra Madre?
When the Philippine Navy, in 1999, intentionally ran aground the BRP Sierra Madre in the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, China turned aghast. The Philippine Navy, meanwhile, did this as a response to the heightening tiff between the Philippines and the People’s Republic of China over the territory of the Spratly Islands in the West Philippine Sea. While this happened after China made an aggressive move by placing “shelters for fishermen” along the stilts of the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, China felt that we made matters worse.
Now, those seemingly harmless shelters have since become artificial islands, after a series of reclamation projects by China over the Panganiban (Mischief) Reef, and all the other islands which they claim as theirs. Still, our own frontier is just that: the BRP Sierra Madre. Our only outpost is a rusted scrap metal.
When the Philippine Marines revitalized the BRP Sierra Madre by initiating rehabilitation efforts, China responded with a barrage of verbal protests over the “bold” move. It seems funny, though, that China feels anxious by the presence of a ship akin to the Flying Dutchman, when the BRP Sierra Madre is no match to the military warships patrolling the West Philippine Sea.
Despite this, however, China has blockaded resupply efforts to the soldiers deployed to man the BRP Sierra Madre. Some blockading efforts have been successful, while the Philippine Marines have resorted to using aerial support and small fishing boats to secretly conduct resupplying efforts.
Worry not, the Philippine government said. There is nothing to fear for, they said further. For no less than the military strategist, Sun Tzu, has emphatically stated that we must appear weak when we are strong, and strong when we are weak. But how could this be true in the Philippines? We appear weak, precisely because we are weak. The newly-acquired weaponry and armaments that we have purchased from other nations, or those donated to us, are no match to what China has right now. The so-called “supersonic age” that our government boasts has since been surpassed by military advancements that our foreign counterparts have since developed.
Much worse, we do not seem to care if China puts an aggressive stand against the BRP Sierra Madre, because we do not seem to attach ourselves to the issue. It has been two years since the Permanent Court of Arbitration has ruled in our favor, but the BRP Sierra Madre still remains. The moment it is moved farther from the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, is the exact moment that China gets closer to actualizing its dominance over the region. It seems very unfortunate that we still have to tiptoe just to resupply our Marine fellowmen over at the landing ship with the necessities to survive- clothes, food, and toiletries. Their shelter is peppered with massive holes. Seawater comes in and out of the vessel. Rehabilitation efforts, again while existing, are dragging slowly. And they say we worry not?
Sure, that the BRP Sierra Madre is essential in our current geopolitical stance is no less enunciated than in the generally accepted principles of international law. Under the San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea, the rules of international humanitarian law shall apply at the moment armed force is used against any vessel owned by a sovereign state. Hence, even the slightest form of armed force that China makes against the BRP Sierra Madre– be it a spear or a gun- would trigger the application of international humanitarian law and, therefore, triggers war.
Sure, this puts China at a very delicate position, because any form of wanton aggression against the landing ship would immediately serve as a declaration of war against the Philippines and trigger self-defense rights recognized under international law.
But, the question that arises, and remains unanswered, is this: who cares? Granting that they attack the BRP Sierra Madre, would they be damned? Perhaps not, because they have since prepared for this; their military dominance is now unparalleled.
Neither did China lift a finger to reprimand the Chinese Coast Guard who apprehended Filipino fishermen making a living over at the West Philippine Sea. Nor has it even issued a statement declaring its disappointment that the Chinese military has blockaded efforts by the Philippine Marines to resupply or replace the men stationed at the BRP Sierra Madre. Nor did they recognize our claim to the Kalayaan Islands Group. To them, the ruling of the Permanent Court of Arbitration remains a scrap of paper- a mere formality that does not bind them, not even worthy of a single ounce of recognition.
So, who will remember the BRP Sierra Madre?
Perhaps China will always remember the landing ship. It is the only thorn that stops them from fully reclaiming the Kalayaan Islands Group. It is the only thing that stops them from stating to the whole world that the whole West Philippine Sea is theirs. Apart from that Permanent Court of Arbitration ruling which invalidated their ridiculous Nine-Dash Line, only our presence in the Kalayaan Islands Group, as “symbolized” by BRP Sierra Madre, hinders their assertion of absolute ownership over the region.
But Juan de la Cruz will not remember it. To him, more problems loom his life rather than mope and complain about an unfortunate ship docked at the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal. He says we leave it to the intellectuals to talk about the West Philippine Sea. He says we leave it to the government officials. That’s what they live for, anyway. We pay our taxes so they could do their job. Sure, I love the Philippines, but I also love to survive, so the classic Juan de la Cruz goes. The Filipinos have chosen to be ignorant and turn a blind eye on this matter.
We have lost our energy in asserting our claim over the West Philippine Sea. Our woes and cries remain unheard; the ruling, a mere scrap of paper. It has since been two years since the Permanent Court of Arbitration has released its ruling, recognizing our sovereignty over the disputed islands. We were assured by the Philippine government that China’s non-recognition would be met with diplomatic protests, but we all know this for certain: the deafening silence by the top honchos of the Philippine government is disturbing.
More so, the present administration does not seem to mind if our only beacon there is a rusted scrap metal. They say they will replace the BRP Sierra Madre with some luxury liner, but perhaps it was just another passing pronouncement, as always. They say, there will come a time when we assert our claim over the Kalayaan Islands Group, but not now. Someone asks, when? And that someone gets apprehended for talking too much. Someone asks, how? And no answers come his way.
How can we spark the interest of asserting the Philippine claim over the West Philippine Sea when we have nothing but a dampened Filipino spirit? How can we, the Filipinos who so cry poverty and misfortune, talk about territorial boundaries when we barely survive every single day? They say we talk more about the economy. They say we cannot cook the BRP Sierra Madre, more so eat it. The talk on military warfare would never feed an empty stomach.
But let it be remembered: a rumbling stomach can cause an uproar so loud that it resonates throughout history. Wars have been waged because of rumbling stomachs. Revolutions have started due to famine, and the warrior is at his mightiest when his famished family calls for help.
When we begin to ponder revolution, we look back to the BRP Sierra Madre. When that happens- that is, when we have realized that our posterity has been left at the whims and mercies of our Chinese “neighbors”, when our sovereignty is crushed into a pile of ash, when the realization of our indolence and indifference kicks in, and when hope is no more- then that would be the only time we remember the BRP Sierra Madre. That is when the what ifs abound. What if we made a stand? What if we demanded respect for our sovereignty? What if…
When we begin to ask the what ifs, let us go back to the misfortune of the BRP Sierra Madre. For that landing ship represents the countless Filipinos who have made the stark efforts to assert our claim over the disputed territory.
Let us remember the soldiers over at the West Philippine Sea, and those deployed at the Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, living at a bare minimum everyday over at the BRP Sierra Madre, with the uncertainty of what tomorrow may bring their way.
Let us remember the Philippine team who argued before The Hague.
Let us remember Justice Carpio, and the countless maritime law experts, who strived to make our eyes open to the need of asserting Philippine sovereignty.
Let us remember the countless protesters who, while some would downplay as a nuisance and a waste of taxpayers’ money, never faltered to assert our claim over the pristine islands.
Let us remember the fishermen who barely survive every day because their fish catch has been affected by the presence of the Chinese Coast Guard who apprehends them when they start to sail near Chinese territory.
Let us remember the marine ecology that once thrived in the Kalayaan Islands Group before the greed for money killed their natural habitat and has since become reclamation areas.
Let us remember, finally, the countless national heroes and soldiers who once braved foreign invaders- Spaniard, American, Japanese- by sacrificing their lives- through the sword and pen- for the hopes of a free Philippines.
For their spirits, too, have been like the BRP Sierra Madre: tarnished, peppered with holes, the future uncertain. Their spirits have been dampened, if not exhausted.
Perhaps this is the point where one sees a statement to hype the Filipino spirit. It goes, there is still hope! There is still that future of becoming victorious against our Chinese counterparts! There is still that beacon of hope that keeps the fire burning, and the Filipino spirit is not undaunted. Let us face our foes and tell them that what they are doing is wrong! We must confront China and wave the PCA ruling against their faces, and tell them to go to hell!
But lest it be done here. It is too late. We are not in that phase where we can still say, “there is still a way”. We are way past that phase. Look at Recto Bank, or Panganiban Reef. Artificial islands have since been erected; runways have been built; and the future of a Filipino-owned West Philippine Sea remains a dream. This is not the part where we say, “hope is not all lost,” for let us face the reality that it already is. Would you expect China to simply leave its reclamation projects and just simply say to the Philippines that, all this time, they were simply developing the Kalayaan Islands Group as a “gift” to the Filipinos? No.
Still, what we have right now is not hope, but a simple dream. Like the vast and long mountain range of the Sierra Madre, the rusted landing ship over at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal still remains. The BRP Sierra Madre stands. It will remain there for generations to come, or at least, in the foreseeable future. It may be tarnished, but it never faded, and it never disappeared. For that is the Filipino spirit: while tarnished and rusted, it remains. It will be there, and it will keep on dreaming, even if the dream is far-fetched.
Ano kaya ang gagawin ko ngayong wala nang
Natitirang pag-asa sa aking mga pangarap
Kaya’t kung mayro’n mang nakikinig sa aking damdamin
Ay dalhin mo na ang awit ko sa amin
(Oh, what am I supposed to do, now that there is
No hope left in my dreams
So, if ever there is someone who listens to my feeling
Please bring this hymn to our hometown)
Just like these lyrics from the song, Sierra Madre, there still remains the dream that, one day, the Sierra Madre will become the single monument that represents the victory of the Filipino: tarnished, yet undaunted. Napapagod, pero hindi susuko. (Getting tired, but will never surrender)
But just like any other dream, it will end, hopefully soon enough. Dreams end when we wake up. For what we have is simply an aspiration- a utopia for a new tomorrow, a new future that we will walk along a path of gold, and that we will live in a land of milk and honey. When we wake up from this imaginative reality of the victory of the Filipino, then that would be the time where we can see that all hope is lost, that our sovereignty has been raped, left at the mercy of our Chinese friends.
Who remembers the BRP Sierra Madre? Nobody has, and nobody ever will. Yet, this is the part where I say that I will be at my happiest if, in everything I have said here, I am mistaken.