I’m still abroad as I write this column. I am currently in Bangkok, Thailand doing a training on freedom of expression for Burmese, Laotian, and Cambodian lawyers. It is a bit of an irony that while I am training members of civil society in Southeast Asia on the value of this freedom in creating a free marketplace of ideas, I had also just come from China where I had first hand experience on the Chinese “great wall”, that is, a successful effort on the part of authorities in Beijing to insulate their people from information derived from sources such as Facebook, Twitter, and even Skype!
It is amazing that while the world has already acknowledged the value of ideas in formulating solutions to problems in modern-day societies, some states, including China, Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam have still been successful at curtailing the full development of the marketplace of ideas. The Internet used to defy these efforts as in fact; its developers envisioned it to be literally a superhighway of information. But China is evidence that even this superhighway may be interfered with. Aside from successfully filtering these hugely popular social networking sites, it has also successfully filtered sites that authorities may have felt were ”unfriendly”. Unfortunately, I found out that one such unfriendly site is my own blog, which I could not access when I was in Beijing. I could only surmise that my entries on the West Philippine Sea, my many entries on freedom of expression, and perhaps pieces I have written on anomalous Chinese contracts such as NBN-ZTE and Northrail may have something to do with the fact that 300 million Chinese Internet users, equivalent to the population of the United States, could not access my blog. How I wish there could be an appeals mechanism for banned blogs in societies such as China as I cannot help but speculate on how much more hits my blog would have had it not been banned in China.
It was also interesting to attend a conference in China on international law that featured one, and only one panelist on the Spratlys islands dispute. Prof. Robert Beckman, Director of the Center of International Law of the National University of Singapore presented the thesis that there has been a remarkable shift in the position of some of the claimant countries to the Spratlys as a result of recent in initiatives from Vietnam and the Philippines redefining their baselines on the basis of base points and baselines drawn pursuant to the provisions of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Seas. While I have been firm in my position that it would not be in the Philippines’ national interest to utilize these optional base points and baselines — since it would mean the loss of tremendous internal waters and territorial waters subject to full Philippine sovereignty in favor of an Exclusive Economic Zone where we could only exercise the exclusive right to explore and exploit resources found thereat —Beckman was rather convincing when he argued that at least China is now alone as a renegade in the region as far as the UNCLOS is concerned. Where I differed profoundly from him is his assertion that the Treaty of Paris could not be used as basis for claiming Philippine territorial seas since the Americans only intended it as delimitation on land boundaries. This is the classic American position belied by the language of the Treaty of Paris itself when it said that the cession involves an “archipelago”. My own son’s grade three textbook on social studies defines an archipelago as a “group of islands surrounded by water”. How could the Americans then claim that what they acquired from Spain was only land territory when what it allegedly purchased from Spain was an “archipelago?
It was even more interesting to see how Chinese international lawyers reacted to the issue. One senior academic took the floor after Beckman discussed his paper and was shaking out of anger at the thought that any one would question Chinese sovereignty over the Nansha islands. One female academic from Shanghai did clarify that the nine dash lines that China had made public only in 2009 was not a delimitation line. This was a source of relief since in the absence of clarification from China, the said lines could be read as delimiting the scope and breadth of Chinese territorial sea in the disputed South China Sea, thereby depriving us even of a 12-nautical-mile territorial sea in the West Philippine Sea. Unfortunately, though, despite the opinion of the academic from China, we still do not know for sure what China is claiming pursuant to these lines.
Back to Bangkok, meanwhile, it is inspiring to know that while despotic regimes thrive in many parts of Southeast Asia, more and more individuals have opted to take an uncompromising stand in favor of democracy and freedom. We have lawyers from Laos, Burma, and Cambodia expressing the view that human rights are inalienable. Many of them in fact are in search of international remedies to address the failure of their governments to protect and promote these rights, most specially that of freedom of expression. And yes, it is a source of pride that through the Center for International Law, we have pioneered in using these international mechanisms to promote human rights in the Philippines and the rest of Southeast Asia. Given the passion and perseverance exhibited by the participants in these training sessions on freedom of expression, I make the brave prediction that despots in the region are now in peril and that their days are numbered.