West Philippine Sea

[OPINION] John Lennon, the West Philippine Sea, and Atin Ito 

Isagani de Castro Jr.

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[OPINION] John Lennon, the West Philippine Sea, and Atin Ito 

Nico Villarete/Rappler

A larger civilian movement pushing for peace and sustainable development in the South China Sea and in the West Philippine Sea is an idea whose time has come

What if, as John Lennon wrote in his classic song “Imagine,” there were no countries? What would the situation then be like in the South China Sea and in the West Philippine Sea? 

I was reminded of the lyrics to Lennon’s famous song and its meaning after watching a China Global Television Network (CGTN) video which questioned the motives of the civilian group Atin Ito Coalition in its mission of giving support and supplies to Filipino fishermen in the West Philippine Sea. A resource person in the video claimed that this mission had connections, perhaps even funding, from American-funded agents or entities. Conspiracy theories about the Atin Ito Coalition have emerged. 

The China-funded Global Times news site claimed in a May 13 “in-depth” article that Atin Ito is a “’hired gun’ fed by the US and long sponsored by US organizations…” and is “serving the US strategy in the South China Sea.”

The Chinese propaganda is understandable. However, these allegations clearly misunderstand the reasons behind Atin Ito, its leadership, as well as the deeper objective of this mission. 

As the leaders of Atin Ito have stressed, this is a civilian mission, it is citizen-led. There are no government representatives, Philippines nor foreign, in the group. Nonetheless, they were “shadowed” by the Philippine Coast Guard in their recent mission to deliver supplies – fuel and food packs – to fishermen in the West Philippine Philippine who are most affected by China’s control of Scarborough Shoal, just in case an unfortunate incident happens. 

[OPINION] John Lennon, the West Philippine Sea, and Atin Ito 

The most prominent leader in Atin Ito is Edicio “Ed” Dela Torre, a former radical priest who is now the president of Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement (PRRM), the Philippines’ oldest non-profit organization. The other leader is Rafaela David representing the socialist group, Akbayan Citizens Party. From their current affiliation, they would appear to be more pro-Chinese, than pro-US! (Watch Dela Torre and David in this Rappler interview.)

I’ve known Ed ever since I started working as a journalist back in 1987. At that time, he was executive director of the Institute for Popular Democracy (IPD), which had an office in Teachers Village near UP Diliman in Quezon City.

This was right after the 1986 EDSA People Power revolution, which saw thousands of political prisoners, including Ed, getting released from years of incarceration during the Ferdinand E. Marcos dictatorship. 

Inspired by how citizens, led by homemaker Corazon Aquino, played a key role in toppling the Marcos regime, Ed and other released political detainees such as former Agrarian Reform Secretary Horacio “Boy” Morales and environmental activist Isagani “Gani” Serrano, decided to test the democratic space post-1986. 

Their goal was to deepen the liberal democracy restored in 1986. They had feared a mere restoration of pre-martial law politics after the EDSA uprising, and decided to push for reforms that would reduce poverty and inequality and advance social justice. Aquino herself had encouraged non-government organizations to strengthen people’s participation in governance. 

Ed, Boy, and Gani, among others, would take up this challenge. 

IPD, for instance, encouraged reform-minded people to join the electoral process, including in the 1987 senatorial race and the electoral races that followed. IPD backed candidates who were not traditional politicians, people who could pursue more reforms and advance Philippine democracy and development. IPD would produce research and training in support of “popular democracy” or “pop dems (popular democrats).”

PRRM, which was then a struggling organization, was revived and transformed into a viable development organization in support of sustainable rural development. Boy and Gani, both now gone, once headed PRRM, and it is now led by Ed. 

There would be many other advocacies in the years that followed, including on agrarian reform, alternative learning, environmental protection, social justice, habitat, health, human rights, and social welfare.

Over the past 38 years, Ed has been advocating active citizenship, one that can pressure and support the state in implementing reforms, as well as opposing it in case it does otherwise. It is the same as what Akabayan stands for – active, not passive, citizenship. 

During the Estrada administration, Ed had a brief stint as head of the Technical Education and Skills Development Authority (TESDA). It was his first major role in government, and the challenge he posed to himself and to his like-minded friends was how to combine the work of ordinary citizens and the work of people in government in order to bring about change and reform. 

John Lennon and citizenship

How then is all this related to John Lennon’s “Imagine”? 

Because this was the favorite song of Gani, whom Ed succeeded as president of PRRM after the former’s death in 2019 due to cancer. Gani was known as a “Marxist-Lennonist (not Leninist)” due to his love for the song “Imagine” and other songs of the Beatles star. 

Isagani Serrano: The Philippines’ ‘little prince’

Isagani Serrano: The Philippines’ ‘little prince’

“Imagine” speaks about peace and citizenship. It’s about the role that ordinary citizens can play in promoting peace. 

Imagine there are no countries, says the song. 

Imagine there’s no China, no Philippines, no Vietnam, no Taiwan, no Malaysia, no Brunei, no Malaysia, just people with no country. 

The people fishing in the South China Sea and in the West Philippine Sea would likely be subsistence fishermen, harvesting and sharing the resources in the waters. 

As it is now, the phrase “Atin Ito” or “This is Ours” encapsulates the Filipino people’s fight for their rights in the country’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the West Philippine Sea. 

But what if there were similar civilian missions in all the claimants to the South China Sea – civilian missions in China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia, Brunei all pushing their governments to agree on sharing the bounties from the resource-rich waters, all supportive of peace, all in favor of sustainable use of the marine resources, all in support of a rules-based order in the disputed waters?

The phrase “Atin Ito” would thus mean regional friendship and cooperation in these waters. It would mean a partnership or a regional pact for peace and sustainable development. 

As Lennon wrote, “Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world.” 

I’m sure Ed is aware that what’s missing in their advocacy is the lack of counterpart civilian missions in the rest of the claimants, especially in China, and it will probably not happen in our lifetime, unless there’s regime change there. 

But Atin Ito has made its point, and is planning more civilian missions to support Filipino fishermen after turning over fuel and other things that they need. 

Think of the Atin Ito Coalition as the maritime counterpart of the community pantries that sprouted all over the Philippines during the COVID-19 pandemic. These were expressions of active citizenship during a crisis. Food and other necessities were donated to people badly affected by the lockdowns. 

CITIZENS. After being red tagged by Quezon City Police and the NTF-ELCAC, the Maginhawa Community Pantry resumes distribution of food and provisions on April 21, 2021, for the indigent families in need. Rappler
Role of civilians in peace building

In a press conference on May 14 prior to Atin Ito’s second civilian mission, this time to Scarborough Shoal, Ed elaborated on why citizens have to play an active role in this dispute. 

“I want to address our fellow Filipinos who say ‘You are pushing us to war!’ Please, the last thing we want is to exacerbate tensions so that it will cross over into something worse, and so we picked up from retired admiral [Rommel Jude] Ong who told us, ‘The Chinese seems to be on the side of militarizing… So, we said, we want to civilianize it. Civilianize doesn’t mean there’s no conflict, but let it be resolved in a civilian way – discussions, maybe even debate, but not physical actions of violence and intimidation.” 

[ANALYSIS] Quo vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession

[ANALYSIS] Quo vadis: Reinventing the PH Navy in the face of the gray-zone obsession

Ed said that in disputes between or among states, the tendency is for the strong ones to use their superiority in power and arms, and there is no “global state” that will settle the dispute. 

“We want to assert our superiority of argument, of law, of principle. Some people might say, [this is useless] in the real world. Maybe, but in the long term, it’s better to pursue them, despite the difficulty – principles, law…,” he said. “Our only force is to mobilize together and attract support and help communicate to the wider world. The world has a stake in this because we need to ensure that this trade route must be guided by international rules, not the policy of the dominant power.”

In a radio interview on Friday, May 19, Ed said their civilian mission has inspired others to also contribute to helping Filipino fishermen, among the poorest sectors of our society. “Matagal nang walang pumpapansin sa kanila (No one has been paying attention to them for a long time),” he said. 

It remains to be seen whether there will be more citizens and organizations supporting Atin Ito’s civilian missions or supporting poor Filipino fishermen in general. The lack of support from the business community is apparent in this case.

But one thing is clear: a larger civilian movement pushing for peace and sustainable development in the South China Sea and in the West Philippines is an idea whose time has come. 

As Lennon concludes in “Imagine,” “You may say I’m a dreamer / But I’m not the only one

“I hope someday you’ll join us / And the world will be as one.” – Rappler.com 

[OPINION] John Lennon, the West Philippine Sea, and Atin Ito 

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Isagani de Castro Jr.

Before he joined Rappler as senior desk editor, Isagani de Castro Jr. was longest-serving editor in chief of ABS-CBN News online. He had reported for the investigative magazine Newsbreak, Asahi Shimbun Manila, and Business Day. He has written chapters for books on politics, international relations, and civil society.