‘Atin Ito’: Panatag trip is about access to WPS

‘Atin Ito’: Panatag trip is about access to WPS

SENDOFF PRAYER Fishermen joining the civilian supply mission today gather at the coastal town of Botolan, Zambales province, for a Mass on Tuesday night led by Fr. Robert Reyes. The mission aims to uphold their rights over their traditional fishing ground amid China’s occupation of that area. —RICHARD A. REYES

SENDOFF PRAYER Fishermen joining the civilian supply mission today gather at the coastal town of Botolan, Zambales province, for a Mass on Tuesday night led by Fr. Robert Reyes. The mission aims to uphold their rights over their traditional fishing ground amid China’s occupation of that area. —Richard A. Reyes

MASINLOC, ZAMBALES, Philippines — Fisherman William Laige, 56, struggled to contain his emotions—a mix of excitement and anxiety—as he and his fellow fishermen started preparing their outrigger boats for what they considered to be one of their most important trips to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal today.

Laige’s long wait to return to Panatag, a traditional fishing ground he had abandoned more than a decade ago due to fear of harassment by the patrolling China Coast Guard (CCG), will end today as he joins a convoy of fellow fishermen, activists, civil society and church leaders, and other volunteers setting off from Barangay Matalvis here at 6 a.m. toward the shoal in the West Philippine Sea (WPS).

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The voyage, organized by the “Atin Ito” (This is Ours) Coalition, is a supply mission to bring provisions to other Filipino fishermen who have ventured into the shoal despite the intimidating presence of the Chinese coast guard and their militia vessels.

Five commercial fishing vessels, which locals call “Pangulong” and with a minimum capacity of at least 20 tons, are taking part in the mission. Each boat carries 25 people, mostly Atin Ito Coalition volunteers, foreign observers, journalists and fishing crew. The vessels will be accompanied by local fishermen in at least 100 smaller boats.

For Laige and other local fishermen, the nearly 24-hour trip to the shoal, some 230 kilometers off Zambales’ coast, was a familiar experience.

“We want to support our fellow fishermen who venture out to Scarborough Shoal, and of course, we also hope that someday we can return there to fish without fear,” Laige told the Inquirer on Tuesday.

Panatag’s rocks and features are within the 200-nautical-mile (370 km) exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Philippines.

From the nearest coast of China, the distance of Panatag is 472 nautical miles (874 km). The shoal is not considered an island but a triangle-shaped chain of coral reefs with several rocks encircling a 150-square-kilometer-wide lagoon.

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It is also known by another name given by the Spanish colonizers, Bajo de Masinloc, which means “under Masinloc.”

Panatag is abundant in marine resources, embroiling several Asian countries but mostly China and the Philippines, in disputes over control and ownership of the rich fishing ground.

In 2012, China seized control of the shoal after a standoff with the Philippine Navy.

This prompted the Philippines to challenge China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea, including the West Philippine Sea, in the international arbitral tribunal in January 2013.

In 2016, the United Nations-backed Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague upheld the Philippines’ exclusive rights over its EEZ, including Panatag Shoal. The landmark decision also declared the shoal as a traditional fishing ground shared by the Philippines, China and Vietnam. China has refused to recognize the ruling.

On its way to Panatag, the civilian convoy will install buoys marked with “WPS, Atin Ito” (WPS, This is Ours) in a designated area in the West Philippine Sea. They will also conduct the first round of supply and fuel distribution there.

The convoy will then proceed near Scarborough and aims to reach the area on Thursday for the second round of distribution of supplies, fuel and food packs.

On Friday, the convoy will observe fishing activities at Scarborough before sailing back to Zambales.

This is the second mission led by Atin Ito, after an aborted “Christmas convoy” to Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal last year, amid shadowing by CCG vessels.

Civilian access

Despite a report from a security expert that the civilian convoy would be met by a number of Chinese ships in the vicinity of Scarborough, organizers said the voyage would push through.

“This is ours. We have been saying that we should normalize and regularize civilian access in the West Philippine Sea. If China is militarizing our own exclusive economic zone, we are there to civilianize our own seas,” Rafaela David, coconvener of Atin Ito Coalition, said at a press briefing in Botolan town on Tuesday.

“We believe that the West Philippine Sea should be accessible to ordinary citizens, especially our fisherfolk communities whose livelihood depends on the seas and ocean,” David added. “We are here to claim that the West Philippine Sea is ours.”

Coalition leaders said they would avoid any contact with the patrolling CCG that might fire water cannons at their boats.

On the eve of the voyage, activist-priest Robert Reyes led the celebration of a Holy Mass in Botolan to offer prayers for the safety of the mission’s participants. Displayed on the altar was the image of Stella Maris (Star of the Sea), a representation of the Virgin Mary.

PCG, Navy watching

In Manila, Rear Adm. Armand Balilo, Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) spokesperson, said the 44-meter BRP Bagacay, one of two government vessels on a humanitarian mission hit by water cannon blasts from Chinese vessels in Panatag this month, will return to the shoal, this time to escort the civilian convoy.

Commodore Roy Vincent Trinidad, Philippine Navy spokesperson for the West Philippine Sea, said the Navy would also send a ship to assist the convoy. He did not provide other details.

“The Philippine Coast Guard is in close contact with them for safety [of] lives at sea,” Trinidad said.

“This is civil society showing that they understand the issue. It is not only a government approach, but a whole-of-nation approach. China should respect civil society in exercising Philippine rights,” he added.

Security analyst Chester Cabalza, president and founder of Manila-based think tank International Development and Security Cooperation, told the Inquirer that the convoy showed the unity of the Filipino people in the face of China’s growing encroachment in the West Philippine Sea.

“It empowers the whole-of-society approach of the government that everyone from various sectors in the country can contribute to national security,” Cabalza said.

“The nation must be proud of them as they symbolize the fight of every Filipino in our endangered maritime entitlements in spite of possible water cannon or dangerous maneuvers that they will face in their collective navigation,” he added.

In the Senate, Sen. Risa Hontiveros on Tuesday assailed China anew over its supposed plan to set up a blockade to stop the civilian mission in Panatag.

Hontiveros said China should “keep [its] hands off our vessels and people” and stop acting “as if they own our seas.”

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“The Atin Ito civilian mission has every right to set sail for Bajo de Masinloc. This is our territory. These are our waters. This is ours and only ours,” Hontiveros said in a statement. —with reports from Marlon Ramos and Inquirer Research

TAGS: Atin Ito Coalition, Bajo de Masinloc, BRP Bagacay, CCG, EEZ, Scarborough Shoal, WPS

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