Gift-bearing convoy begins WPS voyage: ‘This is ours’
The first batch of the civilian convoy bearing Christmas gifts and other provisions for Filipino forces and island settlers in the West Philippine Sea (WPS) left the Port of Manila for Palawan province on Friday morning.
The unprecedented three-day mission organized by the Atin Ito (This is Ours) coalition seeks to assert Philippine sovereignty in West Philippine Sea in the face of increasingly aggressive Chinese intrusions into the country’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ).
In what the coalition described as a “profound display of solidarity and patriotism,” more than 40 volunteers, composed of youth and student leaders, as well as representatives of fisherfolk organizations, set sail for El Nido, Palawan. From there they will proceed to Lawak Island where the cargo will be unloaded for the final leg of the delivery to other communities in the Kalayaan Group of Islands.
The bulk is going to Pag-asa (Thitu) Island, the largest among the Philippine-occupied features in the West Philippine Sea and the only one hosting a permanent civilian population currently numbering around 400.
The gifts are also intended for the troops stationed on the BRP Sierra Madre, the deliberately grounded warship at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal.
The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG)—which has not ruled out the possibility that the convoy will encounter or be shadowed by Chinese maritime militia along the way—is providing security for the caravan.
Serving as the convoy’s mother ship is the MV Kapitan Felix, a training vessel owned by the Maritime Academy of Asia and the Pacific, a school based in Mariveles, Bataan. On Friday, the 5,000-ton, 114-meter-long ship left Manila with a cargo of donated food packs, canned goods, rice, hygiene kits, electronic gadgets, solar lamps, and toys, among others.
For ‘noche buena’
Timing the journey for the holidays, the volunteers mounted a Nativity scene and other religious statues on the ship, as well as the Philippine flag and a banner that read “West Philippine Sea Atin Ito.”
The donated food items, which included canned fruits and pasta dish ingredients, were intended to reach their recipients in time for the “noche buena” or Christmas Eve feast.
“This marks the commencement of a meaningful journey to support fisherfolk communities and front liners in the West Philippine Sea,” said Rafaela David, president of Akbayan and convenor of Atin Ito, in a statement issued by the coalition.
“As we sail forth, let our collective commitment echo in the waves: the spirit of Christmas is not confined to festivities but resonates in our shared duty to improve (their) living and working conditions,” the statement read. “It embodies our nation’s resilience and our peaceful but determined defense of our sovereignty and territorial integrity. Our voyage is a testament to the enduring strength of Filipino unity, even in the face of foreign aggression and intrusion within our beloved West Philippine Sea.”
Upon arrival in El Nido, the volunteers from Manila will join forces with a larger contingent of around 100 people, mainly from the fisherfolk sector, to form a 40-boat convoy that will then proceed to the Kalayaan Group of Islands.
The convoy is expected to navigate “the general vicinity of Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal, Patag (Flat) Island and Lawak (Nanshan) Island,” according to the itinerary seen by the Inquirer. Lawak will serve as the drop-off point from which the donations will be forwarded to Pag-asa and the Sierra Madre by “front liners” that are no longer part of the convoy.
Located 446 kilometers (277 miles) from Puerto Princesa City and 932 km (579 miles) from Manila, Pag-asa hosts a recently inaugurated PCG station and upgraded military facilities, including a 1,300-meter airstrip.
Ayungin, meanwhile, has become a recurrent flashpoint between the Philippine and Chinese coast guards.
Commodore Jay Tarriela, the PCG spokesperson on the West Philippines Sea, earlier said the Chinese coast guard “will surely deploy more of its ships, together with the Chinese maritime militia vessels. With the sheer number of its forces around Ayungin, there is a high possibility that the caravan would be met by the Chinese maritime forces.”
Adm. Ronnie Gil Gavan, the PCG commandant, has discouraged the Atin Ito volunteers from including children and elderly people in the caravan. “This is not a walk in the park. They can take the risk but we would not encourage them.”
The Atin Ito Coalition is composed of the Philippine Rural Reconstruction Movement, Pambansang Kilusan ng mga Samahang Magsasaka, Center for Agrarian Reform for Empowerment and Transformation, Pambansang Katipunan ng mga Samahan sa Kanayunan, Team Manila Lifestyle, Akbayan Youth and the Student Council Alliance of the Philippines.