West Philippine Sea

In Pag-asa Island, residents make a stand to defend Philippine sovereignty

Bonz Magsambol

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In Pag-asa Island, residents make a stand to defend Philippine sovereignty

PH SOVEREIGNTY. A Philippine Coast Guard ship patrols the shores of Pag-asa Island in Palawan on May 16, 2024.

Mark Cristino/Rappler

'Paninindigan po siya na dapat, 'pag sa atin, dapat ipaglaban,' says one resident of Pag-asa Island, one of the land features controlled by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea

“Hindi kami aalis dito. Sa amin ito,” declared Maribel Belono, a resident of Pag-asa Island in the municipality of Kalayaan, Palawan province. (We’re not leaving this area. This is ours.)

Belono, 49, first set foot in the island in 2002. She just wanted to visit the area. But little did she know that she would find herself living here for over two decades now. While the presence of large Chinese ships has been a regular sighting in this part of the West Philippine Sea, it never crossed her mind to leave and live somewhere else.

This is also the case for teacher Kathleen Acosta, 27, who has been deployed by the education department to teach at Pag-asa in 2023. It was not a difficult decision for her to make because, according to her, “it’s a mission.”

“Paninindigan po siya na dapat ‘pag sa atin, dapat ipaglaban. At isa na rin po rito na kapag may civilian dito ay mapapatunayan na ang isla na ito ay para sa mga Pilipino. Hindi para kung kanino, kundi para sa mga Pilipino na nakatira rito sa isla,” Acosta said.

(It’s making a stand that we should fight for what is ours. And one more thing is that when there are civilians here we prove that this island belongs to the Philippines. Not for anyone but for Filipinos who live here.)

Pag-asa Island is located 300 miles west of mainland Palawan. Of the nine land features controlled by the Philippines in the West Philippine Sea. It is the only one inhabited by civilians. That’s why it’s important in asserting Philippine jurisdiction in the contested area.

Clothing, Shorts, Architecture
ATIN ITO. Residents of Pag-asa Island in Palawan gather at a covered court, on May 16, 2024.

On Thursday, May 16, Rappler joined government officials on their trip to Pag-asa Island. Senate President Migz Zubiri led the groundbreaking ceremony of the construction of naval barracks and a super rural health unit. The construction is expected to boost the country’s military presence in the area.

Zubiri was joined by Defense Secretary Gilbert Teodoro Jr. He said that the presence of civilians in the area is important in asserting Philippine sovereignty.

“Kailangan po natin ang civilian dito because this is for them. This is not just purely for military purposes. ang beneficiary nito ay civilians. Ang resources, ating undersea and subsea resources, para sa inyong lahat. So importante po may civilians dito,” Teodoro said.

(We need civilians here because this is for them. This is not just purely for military purposes. The beneficiary of this are the civilians. The resources, undersea and subsea resources, are for the people. That’s why it’s important that we have civilians here.)

According to residents Rappler spoke to here, the government subsidizes their living in the island. They get support in the form of grocery items every 15th and 30th of the month. Some 400 residents, military personnel, and police currently reside at Pag-asa.

In Pag-asa Island, residents make a stand to defend Philippine sovereignty
Continued China bullying

Zubiri and the government officials witnessed themselves Chinese aggression. While their plane had yet to land, they already received “verbal challenges” from Chinese patrols.

“At gusto ko lang pong sabihin kung nakikinig po sila, ito po ang teritoryo ng Republika ng Pilipinas. Hindi po inyo ito. Ito po ay teritoryo ng Republika ng Pilipinas. Bago pa dumating si Magellan, atin na po ito. Kaya kung puwede, lumayas kayo. Layas na kayo,” a fuming Zubiri said in his speech during the ceremony.

(I just want to say, if they are listening, this is the territory of the Republic of the Philippines. This is not yours. This is the territory of the Republic of the Philippines. Even before Magellan came, this has been ours. That’s why you should leave. Leave now.)

This is routine for Chinese patrols scattered all over the West Philippine Sea. They send radio challenges to incoming Philippine aircraft and vessels to shoo them away.

Zubiri has become passionate about the issue on the West Philippine Sea. Since the Marcos administration took over, he has become vocal against China’s harassment to the point of questioning government contracts with Chinese state firms. He co-authored the resolution filed by Deputy Minority Leader Risa Hontiveros strongly condemning China’s aggression in the area. He had also appealed to world legislators to stand with the Philippines as China continues to bully the country in the West Philippine Sea.

Galit ako sa bully. Siguro lahat ng tao galit sa bully. (I hate bullies. Maybe, everyone hates bullies.)You know China has been overstepping its boundaries in the West Philippine Sea,” Zubiri said in a Rappler Talk interview in September 2023.

But back in July 2016, when an arbitral tribunal ruled in favor of the Philippines in its case against China over the West Philippine Sea, Zubiri echoed the Duterte administration’s position and urged Filipinos to exercise restraint in rejoicing over the country’s historic victory.

While Zubiri has made significant strides in asserting Philippine sovereignty, his position on the issue, depending on the government’s position, is another story.

In a recent interview, former vice president Leni Robredo – President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s closest political rival – praised his government’s position in upholding the 2016 arbitral award. “In all fairness to this current administration, mas maganda ‘yung treatment ng current administration as far as China is concerned. Kasi ngayon pine-flex natin ‘yung ating rights. We should have done it six years ago…. Sayang ‘yung anim na taon,” she said.

(In all fairness to this current administration, they have better treatment as far as China is concerned. Because now, they are flexing our rights. We should have done this six years ago…. We wasted six years.)

On the contrary, China’s continued harassment has shown that Vice President Sara Duterte does not share the same view as the Marcos administration when it comes to foreign policy.

The Vice President said that she has “no comment” when asked about China’s bullying. This got the ire of the public because she opted to defend fugitive and Kingdom of Jesus Christ Pastor Apollo Quiboloy who’s facing a string of cases over human trafficking and sexual abuse, yet she has kept mum on the issue of national security.

The Duterte family is known to favor China. Former president Rodrigo Duterte made a pro-China pivot during his administration. The Senate and the House are set to hold this week separate hearings on alleged wiretapping of the Chinese embassy in Manila and the supposed “gentleman’s agreement” that Duterte entered into with Beijing during his administration. (READ: Duterte’s ‘China pivot’ draws int’l reactions)

On the contrary, President Marcos has made a commitment to defend the country against China’s actions. He ordered strengthening the country’s maritime security through Executive Order 57, which renamed and reorganized the National Coast Watch Council into the National Maritime Council. (READ: What is EO 57, which bolsters PH maritime security amid China’s bullying?)

In a Pulse Asia survey released in January, eight in 10 Filipinos wanted the country to work with the United States to resolve the sea dispute.

The issue on the West Philippine Sea proves that political rivals can set aside differences to achieve a common goal – that is to defend Philippine sovereignty. Ordinary Filipinos are also stepping up to make a stand.

As for teacher Kathleen, she said she will never leave the island no matter what the situation is.

Hindi pumapasok sa isip ko na umalis po dito. Every time na umaalis ako rito [for activities outside], ramdam ko ‘yung lungkot sa mga learners ko. Kasi kung sila mismo nagsa-sacrifice as learners, how much more akong teacher po nila?” she said.

(It never crossed my mind to leave this island. Every time I leave for activities outside, I can feel the sadness of my students. If they are willing to sacrifice as students, how much more for me as their teacher?) – Rappler.com

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Bonz Magsambol

Bonz Magsambol covers the Philippine Senate for Rappler.