West Philippine Sea

What you need to know: Civilian mission to Panatag Shoal

Jodesz Gavilan

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What you need to know: Civilian mission to Panatag Shoal

MISSION. Small fishing boats accompany civilian boats of the Atin Ito coalition on a resupply mission to Bajo de Masinloc or Scarborough Shoal on May 15, 2024.

Inoue Jaena/Rappler

The second civilian-led mission seeks to 'normalize and regularize civilian access' in the West Philippine Sea

MANILA, Philippines – The Atin Ito coalition is holding its second civilian mission in the face of rising tensions between China and the Philippines.

The coalition, which includes several civil society organizations, is sailing from May 14 to May 17, 2024, towards Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal, a feature within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ). 

What else do we need to know about the civilian mission?

What will happen during the mission?

The mission seeks to deliver necessary supplies to fisherfolk communities in the area. According to Akbayan president Rafaela David, one of the lead convenors of the coalition, they want “to be able to show solidarity and support to the fisherfolk community who are most affected by what China is doing in our own waters.”

The mission will also deploy “symbolic buoys and markers,” with the message “West Philippine Sea, atin ito (this is ours).”

“We want China to know and see our message,” David said in a press conference on Tuesday, May 14, before they set sail. “So that if China passes by, [our message] will be clear to them.”

The National Task Force for the West Philippine Sea said it “has no objections to the planned civilian mission to support our fishermen in Bajo de Masinloc,” according to a Rappler report

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ATIN ITO. Markers with messages will be deployed during the civilian mission. Photo from Atin Ito coalition
What is the goal of the second mission?

The mission comes as tensions between China and the Philippines continue to rise. But the coalition tagged its move as a “peace and solidarity regatta.”

Edicio dela Torre of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement said that it is more than just delivering supplies, but “reaffirming our presence and rights in our own waters.”

“The world is watching, and the narrative of rightful ownership and peaceful assertion is clearly on our side,” Dela Torre said.

David said that the mission seeks to “normalize and regularize civilian access” in the West Philippine Sea to counter China’s own militarization of the area.

“We’re there to civilianize our own seas because, at the end of the day, we stand by our belief that the West Philippine Sea should be accessible to ordinary citizens, especially to our fisherfolk communities whose livelihood depends on the seas and the ocean,” she said.

Why Bajo de Masinloc or Panatag Shoal?

Bajo de Masinloc, also called Panatag Shoal, is a flashpoint in the ongoing tensions between the Philippines and China. 

The shoal is considered a traditional fishing ground for fisherfolk from the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam, according to the 2016 Arbitral Award. China, however, regularly harasses Filipino fisherfolk in the vicinity and bars them from entering the resource-rich and safe waters of its lagoon.

The PCG also noted that the China Coast Guard (CCG) installs a floating barrier across the lagoon’s opening whenever Philippine government ships are in the area.

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These moves come as China continues to claim all of South China Sea, even if a historic 2016 Arbitral Award rejects this. 

Several incidents perpetrated by China against Filipino vessels took place in Bajo de Masinloc and nearby areas. Just last April 30, the CCG used water cannons against a Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources vessel and one from the Philippine Coast Guard, which were patrolling waters and distributing fuel and food to fisherfolk in the area.

On May 13, a maritime movements expert in the region said that the “largest blockade” of Chinese vessels was on its way to Panatag Shoal. This convoy would most likely include over four CCG vessels and 25 maritime militia ships, according to Raymond Powell of Stanford University’s Project Myoushu.

This seems to indicate that China is “determined to aggressively enforce its claim over the shoal,” he said on X (formerly Twitter). 

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ATIN ITO. Civilian vessels joining the mission to Panatag Shoal. Photo from Atin Ito Coalition
Who is joining the mission?

The convoy will have two main components and have a total of 107 participants, not including fisherfolk that will join the mission. The first component includes five commercial fishing vessels, expected to lead the group, and will have on board around 55 volunteers. There will also be at least 100 “deep sea fishing vessels” from Masinloc, Zambales.

Several organizations will also join the mission, including the following: 

  • New Masinloc Fishermen’s Associations
  • Subic Commercial Fishing Association Incorporated
  • Mabayo Agri Aqua Association
  • Pambansang Katipunan ng Samahan sa Kanayunan
  • Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka
  • Center for Agrarian Reform, Empowerment and Transformation 
  • Akbayan Youth
  • Student Council Alliance of the Philippines
What happened to the first civilian mission?

The first time the Atin Ito coalition set sail for the West Philippine Sea was in December 2023. They also intended to bring supplies to Philippine military and coast guard outposts in the Spratlys.

The group was supposed to originally head for the general vicinity of Ayungin Shoal and Lawak and Patag Islands, but decided to cut short its trip after “constant shadowing” by Chinese vessels, as well as a then-recent water cannon incident against Philippine vessels by CCG. – with reports from Bea Cupin/Rappler.com

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Jodesz Gavilan

Jodesz Gavilan is a writer and researcher for Rappler and its investigative arm, Newsbreak. She covers human rights and impunity beats, producing in-depth and investigative reports particularly on the quest for justice of victims of former president Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs and war on dissent.