Kalayaan protesters get grudging gov’t support
Despite its initial opposition to the protest against China’s actions in the disputed South China Sea region being staged by a group of young people on Pagasa Island, the military has sent a doctor, a priest and other provisions to help the 48 youth volunteers.
The members of the Kalayaan Atin Ito, accompanied by a former Marine captain, Nicanor Faeldon, were treated to a simple dinner and bonfire by the Western Command (Wescom) based in Palawan.
“We salute and thank them for their patriotism regarding the West Philippine Sea issue. But we maintain that they should have pursued alternative activities which would have been more productive and with bigger impact,” said Col. Restituto Padilla, the spokesperson for the Armed Forces of the Philippines.
On Sunday, a Wescom aircraft went to Pagasa Island where the youth volunteers had set up camp, bringing a doctor to check on the protesters’ health and a priest to give spiritual guidance.
The Wescom troops also brought food and water, which they shared with the protesters during a bonfire celebration that night.
The protesting youth group, calling itself the Kalayaan Atin Ito, arrived on the island on Dec. 26 and are scheduled to return to Manila before the year ends.
Padilla said the AFP was monitoring and assisting the youth protesters even as the military is urging them to explore more productive pursuits in fighting for the Philippines’ territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea.
The 48 protesters, ranging in age from 15 to 27, came from various provinces. They were accompanied by Faeldon, one of the organizers of the protest action.
Among the protesters were 11 minors, which Padilla said was part of the reason for the military’s proactive monitoring of the protest.
Lawyer Vera Joy Ban-eg, one of the coordinators, said the youth group will camp out on Pagasa Island for three days after which they will return to Palawan before the end of the month.
The youth volunteers are subsisting on donations from concerned individuals, as well as some of the island’s residents.
“This freedom voyage is a call for unity for the entire country to take a stand to protect our territory. We hope this will get the attention of the international arbitration panel. We are monitoring whatever resolution will be issued on this,” said Ban-eg.
The government had opposed the plan because of concerns over the safety of the youth volunteers during the sea voyage from Palawan. The Coast Guard even threatened to fine boat owners who would ferry the group to Pagasa.
Padilla said the risks included the sea conditions, the seaworthiness of their vessel and the possible reaction of other claimant countries, including China, to the activity.
“Fortunately there were no untoward incidents and we are thankful for that,” he said.
Ban-eg said the group’s mission was a success because they were able to show the cooperation of youth volunteers coming from the Philippines’ 81 provinces on the West Philippine Sea issue.
“We were successful in uniting them despite the difference in religions, culture, traditions and dialects. They decided to set sail here and show our unity over this issue. Our setting foot on this island is an act of ownership,” she said, adding that they are planning future protests.
However, the military said its stand against the protest action would be the same should the Kalayaan Atin Ito be planning another sortie to Pagasa.
“We want them to think of alternative activities that would drive home the same point. At the same time, let’s not unneccessarily endanger the lives of our youths, it’s best that we keep them out of harm’s way,” said Padilla. With Marjorie T. Sia
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