Panatag not reached, but still ‘mission accomplished’

Panatag not reached, but still ‘mission accomplished’

Panatag not reached, but still ‘mission accomplished’

THANKSGIVING AT SEA Fr. Robert Reyes leads a thanksgiving
prayer with fishermen and volunteers of “Atin Ito” (This is
Ours) Coalition aboard one of the four fishing vessels sailing
to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal in the West Philippine Sea on
Thursday morning. —RICHARD A. REYES

WEST PHILIPPINE SEA—The civilian-led supply convoy on Thursday aborted plans to sail closer to Panatag (Scarborough) Shoal, although organizers declared the success of their mission after another boat was able to deliver provisions to 144 Filipino fishers despite the presence of China Coast Guard (CCG) vessels in the area.

“Parang sinabi niyong lumapit tayo kay Kamatayan ‘pag tumuloy tayo (It’s like telling us to approach the Grim Reaper had we pushed on),” Leonardo Cuaresma, president of the Zambales-based New Masinloc Fishermen Association, told the Inquirer.


“If we pushed through with our plan, we might be hit with [a] water cannon,” said Cuaresma, who is familiar with the area as he used to join fishing trips to Panatag.


The convoy, organized by the “Atin Ito” (This is Ours) Coalition, set sail on Wednesday from Masinloc, Zambales province, to distribute fuel and food to fishers and assert Philippine rights in the disputed South China Sea. The shoal, at 230 kilometers off Zambales, is within the Philippines’ 370-km (200-nautical-mile) exclusive economic zone.

The trip comes two weeks after CCG vessels used water cannons against two Philippine government boats near Panatag, a traditional fishing ground of Filipino fishers that they also call Bajo de Masinloc, a resource-rich shoal in the West Philippine Sea controlled by China since 2012.

‘Mission accomplished’

Atin Ito spokesperson Emman Hizon declared “mission accomplished,” telling reporters on Thursday that an “advance team” had already distributed fuel and other assistance to Filipino fishermen a day earlier in an area about 46 to 56 km (29 to 35 nautical miles) from the disputed shoal.

“Atin Ito will now proceed to conduct the final leg of supply distribution in the current area, as there are no more Filipino fishers in [Bajo de Masinloc],” he said.

Hizon said in a message to reporters that the group had received reports that its advance team was later “sent away by various Chinese vessels.”

“Despite China’s massive blockade, we managed to breach their illegal blockade, reaching Bajo de Masinloc to support our fishers with essential supplies,” Atin Ito coconvener Rafaela David said in a statement.


She said the group managed to distribute fuel and food to fishermen who were on board six mother boats and 36 small fishing boats in the area, despite a Chinese Navy vessel, with body No. 175, constantly shadowing them.

The convoy, on Thursday, was on its way back to Zambales and was expected to reach shore by midnight or early Friday.

Atin Ito led a similar mission in December to deliver supplies to troops stationed at Ayungin (Second Thomas) Shoal off Palawan province, but it cut short its journey due to what it described as shadowing and harassment by Chinese coast guard ships.

Chinese vessels

American maritime expert Ray Powell earlier said that China had sent a “huge force” of ships to blockade Scarborough as the civilian convoy sailed to the contested shoal.

Chinese vessels, including a Chinese warship, were seen on Thursday morning near the convoy.

A People’s Liberation Army Navy vessel, with body No. 668, was seen by journalists, volunteers and crew onboard FB Bing Bing, the main boat of the four commercial fishing vessels in the convoy, past 10 a.m.

The Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) said the BRP Bagacay, one of the PCG ships escorting the convoy, saw the China warship at an estimated distance of 8.52 km (4.6 nautical miles) at 10:13 a.m.

Since Wednesday night, a CCG vessel, with body No. 4203, has been shadowing the PCG vessel and the four fishing boats.

The PCG said BRP Bagacay saw CCG vessel 4108 at an estimated distance of 3.92 km (3.2 nautical miles) at 10:10 a.m. on Thursday, while another CCG ship, with body No. 4203, with an estimated distance of 1.28 km (1,400 yards) was seen a minute later.

According to PCG officers onboard BRP Bagacay, CCG vessel 4203 was monitored to be shadowing FB Bing Bing and FB Paty, two of the four commercial fishing boats in the convoy, on Thursday morning.

The convoy came as close as 107.41 km (58 nautical miles) to the resource-rich shoal at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, according to Agustin Bustillo, captain of the lead boat, FB Bing Bing. He said their location was about five hours away from the shoal.

Bustillo said the group decided not to move closer to Panatag after CCG vessel 4108 shadowed and tried to block FB Bing Bing at 6:15 p.m. on Wednesday. ‘Like thieves’

He said some fishermen who were not part of the convoy were irked by the supply mission, as they were worried that it would provoke the Chinese.

“There were some who complained that we’re disrupting their fishing. So we apologized to them, as we didn’t intend to bother them. But they were concerned that our actions might prompt the Chinese coast guard to stop them from fishing near the shoal,” Bustillo told the Inquirer.

With Chinese vessels blocking and shadowing Filipino fishing boats, Cuaresma lamented that local fishermen were now like “thieves” in their own waters.

“This is what I am saying that with China’s presence and regular blockade of our fishing boats, we are like thieves in our fishing grounds,” he told the Inquirer.

He recalled that local fishing boats could go as close as 5.55 km (3 nautical miles) to Scarborough before the Chinese intensified their patrol in the area.

“Then it became 4, then 5 (nautical miles). But now we could only go as close as 24 nautical miles. They are already there to block us,” Cuaresma added.

The Chinese foreign ministry had warned the convoy on Wednesday against any attempt to infringe on Beijing’s “indisputable sovereignty” over Scarborough Shoal.

Reacting to the Atin Ito mission, China said it was extending its “goodwill” whenever it allowed Filipino fishermen near the shoal and warned of “countermeasures” if the Philippines abused China’s permission.

“China made a goodwill arrangement in 2016 for Filipino fishermen to fish with a small number of small fishing boats in the adjacent waters of Huangyan Dao (the Chinese name for the shoal), while China continues to oversee and monitor relevant activities of the Filipino fishermen in accordance with law,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said during a regular press conference in Beijing on May 15.

“If the Philippines abuses China’s goodwill and infringes upon China’s territorial sovereignty and jurisdiction, we will defend our rights and take countermeasures in accordance with the law. Relevant responsibilities and consequences shall be borne solely by the Philippines,” added Wang, whose remarks were translated to English by the Chinese Embassy.

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China claims almost the entire South China Sea, brushing off rival claims by the Philippines and other countries, and ignoring an international ruling that its assertion has no legal basis. —WITH REPORTS FROM DONA Z. PAZZIBUGAN AND AFP 

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TAGS: Panatag Shoal, West Philippine Sea

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