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MANILA, Philippines — A group of Filipino civilians will embark in a historic journey in Philippine waters — they will sail to the West Philippine Sea to assert the country’s control over our own waters.
Organized by Atin Ito coalition, the program will begin on Sunday, December 10. A day before, the caravan of over 40 volunteers — mostly youth and student leaders — arrived in El Nido, Palawan for the project. The civilians, including fisherfolk representatives, arrived in Palawan aboard civilian vessel TS Kapitan Felix Oca loaded with supplies.
The volunteers left Manila on Friday, December 8.
Speaking to journalists who will also witness the historic project, Atin Ito convener and Akbayan Rafaela David said they hope for the mission’s success. “It means a lot to get this level of attention. A lot of firsts for this. This is crucial, this is our first try and we hope it is going to be successful.”
Atin Ito convenor Edicio dela Torre added that they wanted the first mission to be “slightly conservative” to attract the people who are not political.
“There is excitement in this. But the action is in the reaction. If your action is provocative, your reaction is justified. Hindi tayo dapat masisi (We should not be blamed) that we overstepped,” he said.
Who initiated the mission?
Initially, the project will be in a form of Christmas convoy and civilian supply mission to Ayungin Shoal to “deliver some of the donated items to the stationed front liners in order to improve their living conditions and operational capabilities.”
The program is organized by the Atin Ito coalition composed of the groups below and some concerned artists.
- Akbayan Party
- Akbayan Youth
- Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation
- Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka
- Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement
- Team Manila Lifestyle
The initiative is mainly for two things: one, to honor the Filipinos who bear the brunt of China’s intimidations in the West Philippine Sea; and two, to make a statement that ordinary Filipinos can sail freely through its own waters. As early as October 2, the coalition already announced the project.
Atin Ito originally planned to head to the Ayungin Shoal, where the BRP Sierra Madre is located. The old and rusty World War II ship was purposely ran aground in the area to guard against China’s expansion in the area. The ship is manned by few Philippine Marines, under the Philippine Navy.
The beneficiaries of the project include “frontliners” stationed in the West Philippine Sea, which are the Philippine Coast Guard and Armed Forces of the Philippine soldiers. To raise funds and donations, the coalition held a concert in November where people dropped off nonmonetary donations like canned goods, noodles, clothes, toiletries, among others.
The civilian groups will board the 266-capacity ship named MV Kapitan Felix Oca. Around 100 fisherfolk will join the mission, forming a 30-boat convoy set to navigate the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal, Patag, and Lawak islands.
Two PCG 44-meter vessels will escort the caravan.
Not smooth sailing at first
But the project was not smooth sailing at first — it was initially met with qualms by the country’s security officials.
On November 16, the National Security Council (NSC) said it “highly discourages” the caravan. NSC Assistant Director General Jonathan Malaya said the NSC received a letter asking the government for support for the said project.
However, Malaya said although the project’s intention was good, the government cannot support it. The NSC official said that Ayungin Shoal was a hotspot — meaning there is a high tension in the area and many maritime intimidations have been happening in the said maritime feature.
Malaya added that NSC chief National Security Adviser Eduardo Año, also the head of the National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea, was worried about how China would react on the initiative. He also recommended to the coalition to consider other outposts where AFP personnel are also assigned.
A few days later, on November 21, the NSC gave made a stronger opposition on the caravan. Malaya said the NSC “does not support” the project. He added that the agency supports the intent of the Atin Ito coalition “in principle” but said “undertaking such a convoy to Ayungin Shoal at this time of heightened tensions between the Philippines and China is ill-advised.”
Fortunately, the Philippine authorities and the civilian groups came to terms. On November 27, the NTFWPS gave the project go signal after a meeting between security officials and the coalition’s leaders was held.
The government announced that Philippine authorities and the Atin Ito coalition “agreed that a convoy to the BRP Sierra Madre in Ayungin Shoal would not be advisable at this time since the safety of the civilian convoy is of paramount consideration.”
Instead, the caravan will “pass through the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal as far as practicable” en route to other features occupied by the Philippines, including Pag-asa Island. The Philippine Coast Guard was also asked to escort the civilians.
Why this matters
The project came at a time where China’s intimidations against Filipino vessels within our own waters seem to be relentless. Just a day before the caravan’s launch, the NTFWPS said Chinese Coast Guard ships used water cannons against the vessels of the Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) namely Datu Sanday, Datu Bankaw, and Datu Tamblot near Bajo de Masinloc (Scarborough Shoal).
The three BFAR ships are civilian vessels which are in a humanitarian and support mission to provide oil subsidy and grocery packs to over 30 Filipino fishing vessels in the area.
Aside from that, the NTFWPS said Chinese Maritime Militia (CMM) ships also engaged in dangerous maneuvers and deployed “what understood to be” a long-range acoustic device — which can cause pain in the ears. The task force added the Chinese forces deployed Rigid Full Inflatable Boats to disperse and drive away the Filipino vessels awaiting the BFAR ships.
United States and other countries like Japan, Australia, and Canada, among others, had condemned the latest incident. But this latest incident was not the first one — there were already other intimidations against Filipino vessels in the past.
By holding the caravan, the project can boost the morale of Filipino maritime frontliners in the area that will be visited by the civilian groups. Their task to guard the Philippine waters is important in relaying the message that the Philippines stands its ground in its own waters.
After all, the Philippines won its case against China courtesy of the 2016 arbitral ruling. The ruling strengthened the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which states that the Philippines has sovereign rights over features located within its exclusive economic zone or 12 to 200 nautical miles from the baseline of its territorial waters. — Rappler.com